Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen / Werner Herzog

Theses on AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN (1969), a film directed by Werner Herzog

1.) No film is more subversive, more revolutionary.

2.) A film that goes wild, a world without a head.  Midgets run amuck, perform an insurrection, razing buildings and trees to the ground.  A Lilliputian assault: The dwarves take revenge on the tall people who once dominated them.

3.) Not so much a film about violence as a cinematic act of violence against society.

4.) A paedophobic nightmare: The children of the world revolt against the world of adults.

5.) Reason’s nightmare.  Typewriters are smashed, telephone lines ripped down, flowers set ablaze.  The revolt of the dwarfs is a symbolic one: Everything that is pure, everything that is sacred, everything that is dignified is brought down into the mud.  Absolute de-rationalization, de-intellectualization, de-idealization.  A camel–a symbol of piety, nobility, and grace–is repeatedly forced to kneel.  A dwarf’s psychotic laughter fills our ears.  The revolt against reason.  Social anarchy.  The smashing of plates, the throwing of food.  The end of all propriety.  The absence of limits.

6.) The viewer loses all sense of perspective, proportionality, and distance.  Spectators are forced to identify with the dwarfs.  It is the world that has lost its balance; the dwarfs are normal.

7.) And yet the dwarfs are nonetheless grotesque.  The dwarfs who massacre the pig are completely unsympathetic.  Unsympathetic, and yet we are forced to identify with them.  A reconceptualization of what it means to be human.

8.) A corruption of the sacred, a besmirching of all that is holy.  Ridiculing all that is pious.  The inversion of all relations.  The crucifixion of a monkey.  One chicken cannibalizes another.  A dead sow is fed upon by her piglets.

9.) Meaninglessness, absolute infantilism, irrationality, chaos.  But like the student rioters of May 1968, are the dwarfs searching for a new master?  One must take into account where the revolt takes place: an educational institution that resembles a penal colony.  Public institutions demand their own infringement, their own violation.

10.) A remake of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).  We lock away the freaks, rejects, mutants of the world; they are the strangers, the foreigners, “the Others.”  But in this film, we the spectators have no sense of what we would usually consider “the norm.”  Are we not like the dwarves?  Only a few steps away from being freaks ourselves.  “We will make her one of us, one of us, one of us…”  The nightmare of the normal people.

11.) In a profound sense, the film is anti-humanist; the human animal appears as absolutely grotesque.  The viewer loses his bearings: “Am I large? Are they truly small?”  The world moves out of whack.

12.) The subversion of logos, narrative, language.

13.) Midget sexuality.  The dwarfs lust after tall women.

14.) A real live homunculus gangbang, smashing a century of Hollywood cinema to pieces.

Joseph Suglia

STRANGER THAN FICTION by Chuck Palahniuk / Negative Review / Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer

A Review of STRANGER THAN FICTION (Chuck Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia

Is one permitted to write a less-than-obsequious review of a chuckpalahniukbook?  Because chuckpalahniukbooks make so much money, to say something unflattering about them is seen as a sin against consumerism and capitalism, an offence as grave as blasphemy.  We must conform, it is suggested, and worship chuckpalahniuk as a god.

If chuckpalahniukbooks have gained a huge audience among unintelligent teenagers, that is precisely because chuckpalahniuk writes on the level of an unintelligent teenager.

Nonetheless, his book of “essays,” the tritely titled Stranger Than Fiction, risks alienating his Hitler-Jugend-sized fan base.

The clichés begin with the title and get worse from there.  Stranger Than Fiction is essentially a haphazard collection of hastily written notes.  Some of them concern chuckpalahniuk’s fame and the good things about it.  Others concern celebrities chuckpalahniuk knows personally and who know him (it?).

chuckpalahniuk celebrates himself (itself?) with all of the enthusiasm of an out-of-work D-list actor.  He tells us that he “SO writes” in order to meet people who look like Uma Thurman and J.F.K., Jr.: “This is SO why I write.”  How noble!  Unfortunately or fortunately, Uma Thurman, who would not consider herself a writer, is infinitely more eloquent and thoughtful than the writer chuckpalahniuk.

There are “essays” on Marilyn Manson and Juliette Lewis that contain nothing but quotations from Marilyn Manson and Juliette Lewis.

In the “essay” “Brinksmanship,” chuckpalahniuk laughs at his readers, telling them that what he is writing is “rushed and desperate.”  But, he also seems to say, “You’ll read it anyway. After all, I’m a big name now.”  In other words, the writer spits out garbage on the page, and we have to spend our valuable time reading his drivel, while he laughs and laughs and laughs…

There is an entire “essay” on Brad Pitt and his super-gorgeous lips.  Oh, no, don’t be fooled, Gentle Reader!  chuckpalahniuk assures us that this isn’t mere tabloid celebrity gossip.  No.  Don’t be deceived!  As chuckpalahniuk remarks, “This wasn’t really about Brad Pitt. It’s about everybody.”  Really?  You don’t say!

When chuckpalahniuk makes cursory references to serious writers (i.e. those who are not merely celebrities), such as Heidegger, Venturi, or Derrida, it seems unlikely that he spent more than fifteen minutes reading them.

The prose is not simple; it is simplistic.  Minimalism is a powerful literary device, but this is not minimalism.  It is infantilism.  Minimalism only seems simple; there is profundity in its pregnant cadences and silences.  There is no depth beneath this book’s middle-school-level prose.

I am not exaggerating when I say that chuckpalahniuk writes like a subnormal, unintelligent teenager.  Here is what he writes in his correspondence with Ira Levin (whose Rosemary’s Baby he pilfered in Diary): “That’s very, very creepy, Mr. Levin!”

chuckpalahniuk seems to believe that his life is interesting and that we will find his life interesting, as well.  A writer’s life, however, is not a source of significance.  Language and the imagination are the sole springs of literary value.

Witheringly boring, agonizingly self-glamorizing, and virtually unreadable – unless you are Mick, Chick, or Chimp, of course.

Joseph Suglia

THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare / THE TEMPEST Shakespeare / THE TEMPEST analysis / THE TEMPEST analysis Shakespeare / Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST analysis / THE TEMPEST commentary / Shakespeare commentary THE TEMPEST / THE TEMPEST interpretation Shakespeare / An Interpretation of Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST / THE TEMPEST Shakespeare interpretation

THE TEMPEST (William Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

George Bernard Shaw inked the following (in 1913, “The Quintessence of Ibsenism”):

“Reflective people are not more interested in the Chamber of Horrors than in their own homes, nor in murderers, victims, and villains than in themselves; and the moment a man has acquired sufficient reflective power to cease gaping at waxworks, he is on his way to losing interest in Othello, Desdemona, and Iago exactly to the extent to which they become interesting to the police.”

George Bernard Shaw is making the excellent point that Shakespeare’s plays keep the spectator in the jury box.  I endorse this thesis 100%.  Shakespeare never inflicts guilt on the spectator.  I feel guilty, at times, while reading Strindberg.  I sometimes feel guilty while reading Ibsen.  There are passages in Shaw that fill me with guilt.  There are guilt-inflicting and -afflicting scenes in the films of Ingmar Bergman.  But Shakespeare?  Shakespeare is incapable of infusing anyone with guilt.  There are enchantments, entertainments, and enticements in Shakespeare, but there is never a guilt-inspiring moment.  Guilty characters (think of Alonso in The Tempest or of Lady Macbeth).  But no guilty spectators, ever.  At least, the probability of a guilty spectator seems an improbability to me.

* * * * *

The plot of The Tempest, such as it is, should already be familiar to most.  It is centered on Prospero, thaumaturge and erstwhile Duke of Milan, who is marooned on an island–more than likely, one of the Bermudas, which were explored by the English in the early seventeenth century, the time of the play’s composition.  A shipwreck brings phantoms from Prospero’s past, the promise of revenge and reinstatement to Prospero, the promise of freedom to Prospero’s slaves, Ariel and Caliban, and the promise of marriage to his daughter Miranda.  Revenge comes swiftly and easily, Prospero’s dukedom is restored, freedom is won, and marriage is inevitable.  Since all of the protagonist’s desires are fulfilled, The Tempest is a comedy in the Shakespearean sense.  There is very little struggle and thus very little worry over the outcomes.  I will return to this point below.

It might be useful to survey some of the dramatis personae.

Caliban is a cheetah-speckled fish-beast and the Earth-Spirit of the play.  His name is anagrammatical of “can(n)ibal.”  Shakespeare read of South Seas cannibals in Montaigne, and the English of the early seventeenth century did believe that the South Seas islanders were cannibals, devils, evil spirits, fantastic creatures.  Caliban is the whelp of the North African witch Sycorax; his god is Setebos.  “Setebos” is the name given to a Patagonian “devil” by one of Magellan’s companions.  One can see that this is indeed a text that reflects the age of the European seafaring expeditions, the Age of Exploration.

Caliban is not merely uneducated–he is not educable, not civilizable, not humanizable.  His naturalness, his earthiness, his childish stupidity are what make him dangerous.  It does seem that he is the one character who escapes, if only for a moment, Prospero’s power; thus, Prospero’s power is not absolute.  The ex-Duke is so unsettled by the breach in his power that he takes a walk to clear his head.  Then again, Prospero’s dazedness is nothing more than an interlude of impotence, an interruption of senescence or senility.  As Miranda says of her father: “Never till this day / Saw I him touch’d with anger so distemper’d” [IV:i].

No one has ever seemed to notice before that Caliban’s desires mirror Prospero’s own desires.  Caliban expresses his desire to burn Prospero’s books [III:ii]; Prospero drowns his own books (or “book”) toward the close of the play.  Caliban expresses the desire to violate Miranda.  Does Prospero have the same desire?  Am I alone in believing that Prospero has incestuous feelings for his own daughter?  Here is what the magus says about Miranda:

“…I visit / Young Ferdinand, whom [his fellows] suppose is drown’d, / And his and mine lov’d darling” [III:iii].

In the lines quoted above, Prospero does not separate his fatherly feelings from Ferdinand’s erotic feelings for Miranda.

Ariel is the air sprite who does nothing without Prospero’s directive, but it also might be said that Prospero does nothing without Ariel’s assistance.  Ariel’s name means “The Lion of God” in Hebrew.  Despite what Harold Bloom says, the etymology is neither accidental nor irrelevant to the pith of the play.  Ariel releases a leonine roar in the second act and is the serf of Prospero, who is indeed the deific figure of the island.  Ariel is endlessly promised a freedom that seems to be forever denied to him.

Miranda means “She Who is Admired.”  Before she meets Ferdinand, her soon-to-be-husband, the only man she knows is Prospero, unless we consider Caliban to be a “man” (he is, again, a hybrid of man and fish, a fish-man or a man-fish.  As Trinculo says, Caliban is “[l]egg’d like a man, and his fins [are] like arms” [II:ii]).  Prospero is more than mother and father to Miranda–he is the very model of manhood.  And of womanhood.

Miranda is a gift–perhaps a potlatch–from the former Milanese duke to the presumptive King of Naples, Ferdinand.  It is the gift of his daughter that will lead to the restoration of Prospero’s lost dukedom.  Marriage is always a political transaction, in Shakespeare:

[T]hou shalt find she will outstrip all praise,
And make it halt behind her…
[A]s my gift, and thine own acquisition
Worthily purchas’d, take my daughter [IV:i].

Note the nastiness that Prospero showers on his daughter in absentia, discussing her as if she were a horse.

Ferdinand is a big beefy beefhead.  He is a Joe Rogan type.  In fact, Joe Rogan was most likely born to play the role of Ferdinand.  This is how he describes himself (to his fiancee):

“[F]or your sake / Am I this patient log-man” [III:i].

He Log Man lift logs good.

* * * * *

The play was first performed for the amusement and bemusement of James I in November 1611.  This explains why usurpation is one of the play’s leitmotifs and why it contains a wedding masque in the style of Ben Jonson.  The presence of the wedding masque is not accidental: The Tempest is itself a masque and has nothing in its pretty little head other than the desire to beguile, to enchant, to entertain, and to reassure the King, his minions, and the groundlings of the Globe that the King shall always prevail.  The usurping of Prospero’s power by Antonio is the antimasque; the fifth act represents the restoration of the Duke’s (and the King’s) power.  In Ulysses, usurpation takes on a world-historical AND a personal significance–here, it is nothing more than a regal anxiety to be pacified.

There is beautiful poetry to be found in the play, but also some very lenient and lazy writing.  Take, for instance, the following.  Gonzalo, the court lawyer, intones at the close of the first scene of the first act:

“Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground–long heath, brown furze, any thing. The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death.”

Well, that is a wasted bit of dialogue, isn’t it?  Who wouldn’t want to die on dry ground rather than in a shipwreck, as the ship one is in is wrecking?

And here is one of Ariel’s excruciatingly stupid songs:

Before you can say ‘come’ and ‘go,’
And breathe twice, and cry ‘so, so,’
Each one, tripping on his toe
Will be here with mop and mow.
Do you love me, master? No? [IV:i].

I could quote more senile singsong, but my tolerance is limited.  There are those who could read such lines and still consider all of Shakespeare, the paper Shakespeare, to be perfect.  I am not one of them.

There is too much tawdry bawdry in the play, too much of what we would call today “comic relief.”  With the exception of a botched assassination attempt, the entire second act is wasted on laughless comedy.  The comedy is the poetic nadir of the play.  It is not that the raillery is dated, nor that it has long since been drained of any humor it might have had.  The problem is that it is fluff, filler–empty pages and too much empty time, time wasted idly and emptily on the stage.

* * * * *

Why, exactly, should we believe that Prospero ought to be reinstated as the Milanese duke?  Prospero was disgracefully inept as a duke.  He explains to Miranda how his brother, Antonio, usurped control of the Milanese dukedom:

The government I cast upon my brother
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies…

I thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind
With that which, but by being so retir’d,
O’er-priz’d all popular rate, in my false brother
Awak’d an evil nature… [I:ii].

The neglectful and inadvertent duke, absorbed in the dark arts, loses his material power. We won’t have to wait very long before he wins it back again. Despite all of his flaws, and of these there are many, Prospero emerges as “The Favored One,” as his name implies.  He does this so effortlessly and smoothly that there is no space to wonder about the outcome.  Prospero wins, without even trying to win, a game that is rigged in advance, and this (as I stated earlier) is what makes The Tempest a Shakespearean “comedy.”

A Shakespearean comedy is not a play that makes us laugh, but a play in which the (sometimes unlikable) main character is easily victorious and the principals are married off, even if they don’t want to be married off.

All Shakespearean comedies project utopias.  They are not frictionless utopias, to be fair.  There are discordances in every one of Shakespeare’s utopias.  Antonio, the usurping brother, and Caliban, the rebel slave, provide the discordances in The Tempest.  And yet these disharmonies, these frictions, only exist in order to make the triumph of favored Prospero all the sweeter.  The Duke is deposed, then reinstated.  The Duke is dethroned, long live the Duke!

Some commentators have mused: Why are Prospero’s adversaries so threatened by the thaumaturge after he abjures his art?  Why don’t they rise up and slit his throat (which Caliban intended to do earlier)?  That they do not do this is nonplussing.  On the contrary, they stand in fear of the demystified mage.  Even after the abjurement of his magic, Sebastian says that the “devil speaks” in Prospero and Caliban worries that his master will “chastise” him [V:i].

It is difficult to say why Prospero’s enemies are meekened and weakened at the close of the play.  Perhaps, as Harold Bloom proposed, the magus does not need any of the external signs of magic.  Perhaps he has interiorized all of his powers.  He can break his staff, drown his book, and shed his mantle, for his power now comes from within.  Or is it merely the case that Prospero’s enemies–Sebastian, Antonio, Caliban, Stefano, Trinculo–are unaware that the magus has abjured his art?

While reading the play, there will be pleasantly unpleasant thought that more mischievous readers will not be able to suppress: They will wish that Caliban would rise up and devour all of the inhabitants of the isle.  This is more or less what happens in Peter Brook’s dramatization.  But no, instead, Prospero wins and forgives every one of his adversaries in the proto-Nietzschean affirmation of his power.

Indeed, forgiveness is the final phase of Prospero’s revenge plot.  Prospero calls his perfidious brother “wicked” and “unnatural” in the very sentences through which he forgives him:

“I do forgive thee, / Unnatural though thou art” [V:i].

The “rarer action” [Ibid.] is to forgive rather than to avenge.  But my question is thus: Can forgiveness not be a form of vengeance?

* * * * *

In the Epilogue, the actor who plays Prospero steps onto the stage one last time to beg for applause: “[R]elease me from my bands / With the help of your good hands.”  He asks for the spectator’s “indulgence.”  He says that his project was to “please.”  Only applause can free the actor from the isle of mirages over which the mage presides.

Here we have a pitiful plea for approbation from an attention-hungry actor-dramatist.  It is a Pathetic Appeal in two senses of the term: On the one hand, it is the attempt to stimulate the pity of the spectators and to provoke within them the pity-driven need to clap.  On the other hand, it is an appeal that is, well, pathetic, in the colloquial-American sense of the word.  But then, the Actor himself is yet another mask.  One mask conceals another mask conceals another mask conceals another mask, and so forth ad infinitum.

Here we have the Shakespearean conceit that life is theatre and theatre, life.  The island is an island of illusions where no man is his own [V:i].  The characters on the stage, of course, are nothing more than dramatic illusions–and are themselves illusioned.  We–the audience, the spectators, we human beings–we ourselves are illusions, according to Shakespeare: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” [IV:i].  Each character is seduced by simulations or seduces by simulation: The shipwreck is described as a “spectacle”; Ariel assumes the shape of a water-nymph and then a harpy; Prospero camouflages himself throughout the play in various disguises; Caliban, Trinculo, and Stefano are seduced by garments hanging from the bough of a tree, etc., etc.

To please the audience, to appease the audience, to entertain the audience is also Shakespeare’s only goal in The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s most overestimated plays.  I should here make the point that Shakespeare was, in the non-problematic comedies, a panderer, a jongleur of the court.  His non-problematic comedies always pander.  They seek to assuage their audiences’ fears.  They never provoke their audiences.  To return to my opening point: No one has ever been made to feel guilty by a Shakespeare play.

At the end of the day, The Tempest does bear one redeeming facet: The play sparked some of the most exciting works of literature of the twentieth century.  The hallucinatory wonderlands of J.G. Ballard, for instance (by way of Joseph Conrad) would have been unthinkable without the tempestuous bluster of The Tempest, a play that never shakes the pear tree of the audience’s expectations.

Dr. Joseph Suglia


An Analysis of ROBERTE CE SOIR and THE REVOCATION OF THE EDICT OF NANTES (Pierre Klossowski) by Joseph Suglia

Roberte ce soir and The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes: two religious-erotic/erotic-religious novels from one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, Pierre Klossowski.

Roberte ce soir: Who is Roberte?  To her nephew, Antoine, she is an austere and prepossessing older sister.  To her husband, Octave, she is an infuriatingly beguiling hostess.  To any guest who traverses the threshold of their home, she is an open receptacle for virility–strangely inaccessible and accessible at once.  But Roberte is nothing, strictly speaking, in herself: She is a ceaselessly multiplying play of masks.  Her self-multiplications enlarge infinitely.  Purely mutative, purely transformative—who is she, really, in herself, if not a series of duplicates?  To every man she encounters, she is the replica of his desires.

Her sin, according to Octave (and the narrative!), is to have separated the spirit from the body.  She is both atheist (exclusive of the spirit) and a censor (exclusive of physicality).  Quite appropriately, the prose is, at times, erotically informed (emblematical of the body); at others, theologically informed (emblematical of the spirit).

The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes: In this second novel, Roberte speaks in her own language.  We see her free from the one-sided interpretations that men have imposed upon her.  No, she never separates the word from the flesh.  She is word and flesh at once; like Klossowski’s God, she is eminently communicable, absolutely self-transformative, the hypostatical union of three-in-one.  And she never denied God, only the idol that men have made of God (God as an immutable and incommunicable substance).

The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes revokes every hypothesis that might be imposed on Roberte, Klossowski’s muse and God.  Like a tableau vivant (a living painting, a human sculpture), she dangles silently in space.

In both of these absolutely remarkable books, theological digressions and eroticism dovetail into a seamless flow of language.  Together, they form a metaphysics of the flesh.

Klossowski, my neighbor.

Joseph Suglia

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

by Joseph Suglia

Was Shakespeare a hater of Jews?

It is impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of dead author, as it is impossible to reconstruct our own thoughts.  All we have are the plays.  The question, then, ought to be revised:

Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Judaic play?  There are certainly disobliging and unflattering references to Jews in the text.  There are disobliging and unflattering references to Jews in other Shakespeare plays, as well.  Confer Much Ado about Nothing and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for instance.

The frequent charges of Anti-Judaism that have been leveled against The Merchant of Venice perhaps derive from the play’s presentation of a relationship between Jewishness and the calculation of interest, or usury.  But more specifically, the play stages a relationship between the making of an oath and the accrual of a debt.

The debt that is owed to Shylock–a “pound of flesh”–is guaranteed by an oath.  The pound of flesh is not, according to The Merchant of Venice, a metaphor for money.  It refers literally to the flesh “nearest the merchant’s heart”:

And lawfully by this the Jew may claim
A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off
Nearest the merchant’s heart [IV:i].

The oath prevents Shylock from translating the debt into figurative terms, despite Portia’s urgent offer to give him three times the sum (“Shylock, there’s thrice thy money offered thee” [Ibid.]).  The debt of the “pound of flesh” must remain literal, not figurative–the phrase must refer to the excised human flesh, not to money.

If Antonio is compelled to liquidate the sum of money owed to Shylock, “the Jew” is not similarly coerced.  Portia’s injunction to forgiveness–“Then must the Jew be merciful” [Ibid.]–is groundless according to contract law.  There is nothing, no contractual obligation, no force of law that compels Shylock to be merciful and to forgive the debt: “On what compulsion must I? tell me that” (Shylock) [Ibid.].  For the hateful Christian Anti-Judaist, “The Jew” is one who clings to the letter of the law and not the law of forgiveness.  Justice and mercy may not coexist.  To show mercy would be, according to Shylock, to disregard the letter of the contract.  Nothing, according to Shylock, obligates him to forgive the debt or to be merciful.  The contract, however, which Shylock follows to the letter, requires repayment of the debt within three months.  Such is a way in which Christian Anti-Judaism is staged in The Merchant of Venice.

The law is transcendent and submission to it is mandatory, both for the Christian judge and the Jewish creditor:

It must not be, there is no power in Venice
Can alter a degree established:
’Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be [Ibid.].

If the oath is binding, it is because it is based upon a transcendent law.  But what is the source of the transcendent law?  What gives it its force?  And what compels one to follow it?  The law, according to Shylock, has a divine origin:

An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven.
Shall I lay perjury on my soul?
No, not for Venice [Ibid.].

And later:

I charge you by the law,
Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar,
Proceed to judgment; by my soul I swear,
There is no power in the tongue of man
To alter me.  I stay here on my board [Ibid.].

The law is beyond all human power and representation and demands absolute submission from humanity; it must be followed.  Human language, “the tongue of man,” is powerless against it, even though the word of the divine is written in the form of a contract, another instance of “the tongue of man.”  Divine law demands absolute fidelity and inscribes itself in the contract which is written in the tongue of man.  The contract–again, written in human language–is binding because of its divine provenance.  Here we encounter a Shakespearean version of the natural-law argument.  The naturalism of the moral law is evident in the contract itself, which “the Jew” knows inside and out, inwendig and auswendig.  Both Christian AND Jew are obligated to follow the law of Venice, which is theological in origin.

Portia’s response to all of this theological nonsense is a reductio ad absurdum argument. Dressed in the garb of a man, Portia will take Shylock’s desire for a “pound of flesh” to the limit:

Tarry a little: there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood–
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh”;
Take then thy bond, taken then thy pound of flesh,
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice [Ibid.].

“The Jew,” according to the stupidity of conventional Anti-Judaism (and is there any Anti-Judaism other than the conventional version?), ignores the spirit of the law in favor of the letter.  “The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’”: By literalizing his statement, Portia is able to undermine Shylock’s project to exact (and extract) from Antonio what these words denote.  There is an absolutely unified relationship between words and what they mean.  The codicil to the contract will state that “the Jew’s” property and land will be confiscated if the penalty is not carried out to the letter.

Shylock, of course, refuses to carry out the penalty; he refuses to punish the debtor, Antonio.  Soon thereafter, the stage direction is given: “Exit Shylock.” Shylock disappears rather early in the play (Act Four: Scene One).  The earliness of this disappearance is particularly strange for a Shakespeare play, given that the Shakespearean villain usually remains until the final act.  Shylock’s fate will be a forcible conversion to Christianity, thus firming the play’s staging of a vehemently Anti-Judaic stance.

The question still remains unanswered: Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Judaic play?  My impression is that it is.  The Merchant of Venice shows a rabid hatred of Jews, as it stupidly identifies Judaism with literalism and the literalization of metaphors.  The Merchant of Venice is about the literalization of the metaphor and the becoming-metaphor of the letter.

Joseph Suglia

A Review of MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE: Volume Two (Karl Ove Knausgaard): by Dr. Joseph Suglia / MY STRUGGLE by Karl Ove Knausgaard

An Analysis of My Struggle (Min Kamp): Volume Two (Karl Ove Knausgaard)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

“The artist is the creator of beautiful things.  To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s only aim.”

–Oscar Wilde, Preface, The Picture of Dorian Gray

“Woo. I don’t know how to sum it up / ’cause words ain’t good enough, ow.”

–One Direction, “Better Than Words”

If I could accomplish one thing in my life, it would be to prevent people from comparing the Scandinavian hack Karl Ove Knausgaard with Marcel Proust.  Knausgaard does not have a fingernail of Proust’s genius.  Comparing Knausgaard to Proust is like comparing John Green to Proust.  Those who have actually read À la recherche du temps perdu know that Proust’s great novel is not the direct presentation of its author, a self-disclosure without literary artifice.  Those who compare Knausgaard to Proust have never read Proust and have no knowledge of Proust beyond the keyword “madeleine.”

Knausgaard calls his logorrheic autobiography, My Struggle (Min Kamp), a “novel,” but in what sense is it a novel?  It is completely devoid of novelistic properties.  There is not a single metaphor in the text, as far as I can tell, and the extended metaphor (perhaps even the pataphor?) is one of Proust’s most salient literary characteristics.

The first volume dealt with Knausgaard’s unimportant childhood; Volume Two concerns the middle of the author’s life, his present.  He is now in his forties and has a wife and three children.  He spends his time, and wastes our own, recounting trivialities, stupidities, and banalities.  All of the pomposities are trivialities.  All of the profundities are stupidities.  All of the epiphanies are banalities.

For most of this review, I will refer to Karl Ove Knausgaard as “Jesus,” since he resembles a cigarette-smoking Jesus on the cover of the English translation of the second volume.

We learn that Jesus dislikes holidays.  We learn that raising children is difficult.  Jesus takes his children to a McDonald’s and then to the Liseberg Amusement Park.  In the evening, Jesus, his wife, and his daughter attend a party.  Jesus thanks the hostess, Stella, for inviting them to her party.  His daughter forgets her shoes.  Jesus gets the shoes.  He sees an old woman staring through the window of a Subway.

Jesus smokes a cigarette on the east-facing balcony of his home and is fascinated by the “orangey red” [65] of the brick houses below: “The orangey red of the bricks!”  He drinks a Coke Light: “The cap was off and the Coke was flat, so the taste of the somewhat bitter sweetener, which was generally lost in the effervescence of the carbonic acid, was all too evident” [66].  He reads better books than the one that we are reading (The Brothers Karamazov and Demons by Dostoevsky) and tells us that he never thinks while he reads.  For some reason, this does not surprise me.

Jesus attends a Rhythm Time class (I have no idea what this is) and meets a woman for whom he has an erection.

Jesus’s daughter points her finger at a dog.  “Yes, look, a dog,” Jesus says [80].

Jesus assembles a diaper-changing table that he bought at IKEA.  The noise irritates his Russian neighbor.  He cleans his apartment, goes shopping, irons a big white tablecloth, polishes silverware and candlesticks, folds napkins, and places bowls of fruit on the dining-room table.

In the café of an art gallery, Jesus orders lamb meatballs and chicken salad.  He informs us that he is unqualified to judge the work of Andy Warhol.  I agree with the author’s self-assessment.  He cuts up the meatballs and places the portions in front of his daughter.  She tries to brush them away with a sweep of her arm.

Almost ninety pages later, Jesus is in a restaurant eating a dark heap of meatballs beside bright green mushy peas and red lingonberry sauce, all of which are drowning in a swamp of thick cream sauce.  “The potatoes,” Jesus notifies us, “were served in a separate dish” [478].

(Parenthetical remark: “[A] swamp of thick cream sauce” is my phrasing, not Knausgaard’s.  Again, Knausgaard avoids metaphorics.)

Upstairs in the kitchen of his apartment, Jesus makes chicken salad, slices some bread, and sets the dinner table while his daughter bangs small wooden balls with a mallet.  And so forth and so on for 592 pages of squalid prose.

Never before has a writer written so much and said so little.  The music of ABBA is richer in meaning.

Interspersed throughout the text are muddleheaded reflections on What It Means To Be Human.  We learn (quelle surprise!) that Knausgaard is a logophobe, “one who fears language”:

Misology, the distrust of words, as was the case with Pyrrho, pyrrhomania; was that a way to go for a writer?  Everything that can be said with words can be contradicted with words, so what’s the point of dissertations, novels, literature?  Or put another way: whatever we say is true we can also always say is untrue.  It is a zero point and the place from which the zero value begins to spread [here, Knausgaard seems to be channeling Ronald Barthes].  However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader.  It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe.  Paul Celan’s mysterious, cipher-like language has nothing to do with inaccessibility or closedness, quite the contrary, it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover.  Paul Celan’s words cannot be contradicted with words.  What they possess cannot be transformed either, the word only exists there, and in each and every single person who absorbs it.

The fact that paintings and, to some extent, photographs were so important for me had something to do with this.  They contained no words, no concepts, and when I looked at them what I experienced, what made them so important, was also nonconceptual.  There was something stupid in this, an area that was completely devoid of intelligence, which I had difficulty acknowledging or accepting, yet which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do [129-130].

The only value of literature, then, according to Knausgaard, resides not in words, but in the transcendence from words.  Literature is not composed of letters, for Knausgaard; literature is the feelings and the impressions summoned forth within the reader.  After all, any idiot can have feelings.  Very few people can write well.

It is clear that Knausgaard, then, does not think very much of literature.  He is much more interested in LIFE.  Everyone alive has life.  Yes, palpitant life–throbbing, living life.  Life is the most general of generalities, but talent is much rarer, to channel Martin Amis.

This might be the reason that Knausgaard dislikes Rimbaud’s verse, but is interested in Rimbaud’s life.

“Fictional writing has no value” [562] for Knausgaard.  After all, fiction is distant from life, isn’t it?  This Thought is at least as old as Plato.  Knausgaard is unaware that fiction is, paradoxically, more honest than autobiographical writing.  Autobiographical writing is fiction that cannot speak its own name, fiction that pretends to be something more “real” than fiction.

(Parenthetically: Despite what Knausgaard tells you, Pyrrho did not practice misology.  He affirmed the uncertainty of things.  Following Pyrrho: One can never say, “It happened” with certainty; one can only say, with certainty, that “it might have happened.”)

Hater of words, enemy of literature: Such is Knausgaard.  He despises language, presumably because he does not know how to write.  What is one to say of a writer who hates writing so much?  One thing ought to be said about him: He is alarmingly typical.

Knausgaard is at home in a culture of transparency, in a culture in which almost everyone seems to lack embarrassability.  Almost no one seems embarrassed anymore.  People go out of their way to reveal everything about themselves on social-networking sites.  Average people reveal every detail of their lives to strangers.  The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is violated, and almost no one seems to care.  We live in a culture in which our privacy is infringed upon countless times every day, and where is the outrage?  Those who are private–or who believe in the right to privacy–are regarded with malicious suspicion.  Seen from this cultural perspective, the success of My Struggle should come as no surprise.  An autobiography in which the writer reveals everything about himself will be celebrated by a culture in which nearly everyone reveals everything to everyone.

Art is not autobiography.  As Oscar Wilde declared in the preface to his only novel, the purpose of art is to conceal the artist.  Literature is not auto-bio-graphy, the presentation of the self that lives, the “writing of the living self.”  It is, rather, auto-thanato-graphy, the writing of the self that dies in order for art to be born.

Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of All’s Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

“Die Forderung, geliebt zu werden, ist die grösste aller Anmassungen.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, Volume One, 525

My argument is that Shakespeare is both the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the history of English literature.  His most famous plays are stupendously and stupefyingly overrated (e.g. The Tempest), whereas the problematical plays that have been relatively understaged and underread until recently, such as Measure for Measure and Love’s Labour’s Lost, are his masterworks.  All’s Well That Ends Well is rightly seen as one of the problematical plays, since it does not exactly follow the contours of the Shakespearean comedy.

One could rightly say that all of the Shakespearean comedies are conjugal propaganda.  They celebrate marriage, that is to say, and marriage, for Hegel and for many others, is the foundation of civil society.  In the Age of Elizabeth, long before and long afterward, the way in which children are expected to have been begotten is with the imprimatur of marriage.

But there is no marriage-boosterism in All’s Well That Ends Well, no ra-raing or oohing and aahing over marriage.  In All’s Well That Ends Well, a celebration of marriage is absent.

Whereas Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream end in anti-orgies, in collectivized, communalized, semi-coerced marriages, the wedding in All’s Well That Ends Well takes place in the second act and is absolutely coerced.

The play is about a woman named Helena who forces a man named Bertram to marry her and to have sexual intercourse with her.  As blunt as this synopsis might be, it is nonetheless accurate.  A psychotic stalker, Helena will stop at nothing and will not take “Yes” for an answer.  She pursues Bertram relentlessly.  As I shall argue below, Bertram genuinely does not want to be married to Helena, nor does he wish to be physically intimate with her.  Not only that: There is absolutely no evidence that he desires Helena at the end of the play.  Quite the opposite, as I shall contend.  Much like her predecessor, Boccaccio’s Giletta, Helena is a monomaniac whose obsession ends in the achievement of her desire and her scheme: “[M]y intents are fix’d, and will not leave me” [I:i].  And yet, does obsession ever end?

When we are first presented with her, Helena remarks, “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” [I:i].  She means that she affects a sorrow for her father, who died not more than six months ago, but is genuinely sorrowful over the thought of the impossibility of possessing Bertram: “I think not on my father, / And these great tears grace his remembrance more / Than those I shed for him” [Ibid.].  Her indifference to her father’s death reveals that she is hardly the virtuous innocent that the Countess, Lefew, and (later) the King of France take her to be: “I think not on my father…  I have forgot him.  My imagination / Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s” [Ibid.].  All she thinks about is Bertram, whose “relics” she “sanctifies” [Ibid.], much like a dement who collects the socks of her lover which she has pilfered from the laundry machine.

Even more revealingly, Helena’s love for Bertram has a social and political valence: “Th’ambition in my love thus plagues itself” [I:i].  Am I alone in hearing in the word ambition an envy for Bertram’s higher social status?  I am not suggesting that her love for him is purely socially and politically motivated.  I am suggesting rather that her love is inseparable from the desire for social / political advancement.

When he takes his leave, Bertram does not propose that Helena visit Paris to win the King’s favor, despite what Helena’s words might suggest: “My lord your son made me to think of this; / Else Paris and the medicine and the king / Had from the conversation of my thoughts / Haply been absent then” [I:iii].  Helena lies to the Countess—and/or lies to herself—when she says that her love “seeks not to find that her search implies, / But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies” [I:iii].  No, Helena is indefatigable and is hardly the self-abnegating “barefooted” saint [III:iv] that she pretends to be.  Furthermore, she is lying to herself and to the Countess of Rossillion when she says that she is not “presumptuous,” as she is lying when she says that she would not “have [Bertram]” until she “deserve[s] him” [I:iii].  Who decides when she should “deserve” Bertram?  Apparently, Helena believes that only she is authorized to decide when she is deserving of Bertram.  Why is Bertram not permitted to decide when and if she is deserving of him?  Helena is sexually aggressive from the beginning unto the sour end.

The fundamental challenge of the play is not for Helena to find a way to become married to Bertram.  As I wrote above, Bertram is forced to marry Helena in the second act of the play.  The fundamental challenge of the play is for Helena to find a way to have sexual intercourse with Bertram—to couple with him, whether he wants to couple with her or not.

And Bertram has made it clear that he does not find Helena sexually attractive.  And yet Helena refuses to accept his rejection and sexually unifies with Bertram while dissembling herself as another woman, Diana Capilet.

Helena is not satisfied merely being married to Bertram.  Nor, it seems, would she be satisfied with Bertram’s assent and consent, even if he had assented and consented to the marriage.  She wants to possess Bertram against his own will: “[L]ike a timorous thief, most fain would steal / What law does vouch mine own” [II:v].

Why not take Helena at her word?  On the one hand, she is saying that she is lawfully entitled to the appropriation of Bertram’s body, but that is not enough for her.  She is saying that she has the power to break his life, but she would rather have the power to break his heart.  On the other hand, taking Helena at her word, she is the thief who would like to steal what is lawfully her own.  She would like to experience the thrill of transgressing the law without ever transgressing the law.  All’s well that ends well.  She does not want to take the wealth of his body; she wants to steal the wealth of his body.  Now, this might seem a curiously literal interpretation of the line, but does Helena not deceive her husband like a thief in the night [III:ii]?  She does not cheat on her husband; she cheats with her husband.  She is like the banker who steals from her own bank or like the casino owner who gambles at her own casino.

It would be a mistake to see Bertram as an erotophobe, since he does attempt to seduce Diana.  He is revolted by Helena.  The idea of having sex with her suffuses him with nausea.  Bertram acknowledges that he is married to a woman whom he does not love, but he swears that he will never be physically intimate with her.  In a letter to his mother, Bertram writes: “I have wedded [Helena], not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal” [II:ii].  He is so disgusted by the idea of having sex with her that he goes to war to escape her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her” [II:iii].

Bertram’s reluctance to be yoked to Helena must be seen within the horizon of the early seventeenth century.  Let us not forget that Queen Elizabeth was the monarch at the time of the play’s composition, and within Bertram’s refusal to become the “forehorse to a smock” [II:i] (the leading horse in a train of horses spurred on by a woman) one can hear the resonances of Elizabeth’s reign.  However, it would be mistaken to suggest that Bertram does not want to marry Helena merely because she is a woman who has been invested with regal authority or merely because she was once lowborn and poor.  Again, he finds her physically repellent.

Helena does not stop until she couples with Bertram without his consent.  Is this not rape?  According to the standards of our day, impersonated sex is indeed sexual violation, but it is unlikely that it would have been considered ravishment in the Age of Elizabeth.

And is this not incest, for Helena and Bertram are sister and brother, disregarding the banality of biology?  There is a conversation about incest in Act One, Scene Three, the conclusion of which is: Helena would acknowledge the Countess as her mother, on the condition that the world does not recognize Bertram as her brother.  But are Helena and Bertram not sister and brother?  They grew up together in the same household, and it is possible that Bertram rejects Helena partly out of the fear of incest.

The Countess certainly sees Helena as her organic daughter: “If [Helena] had partaken of my flesh and cost me the dearest groans of a mother I could not have owed her a more rooted love” [V:v].  Helena is the replica that is naturalized, much like the artificial fruit in the bowl that lies upon your kitchen table, which you accept as natural.

Fortune (what is constituted after birth) and Nature (what is constituted at birth) reverse each other: Bertram becomes the bastard child; the orphan Helena becomes the proper daughter: “Which of them both / Is dearest to me I have no skill in sense / To make distinction” [III:iv].  Much worse: The Countess raises Helena to a status that is higher than that of her own son, who is written off by her as a reprobate.  When the Countess intones the opening line of the play, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” [I:i], you do get the impression that her biological son is dead through the act of birth, that her son is a stillborn.

Throughout the play, there are posited false equivalences.  Convalescence is falsely equated to marriage, as virginity is equated to mortality.  Epexegesis: The revival of the King of France is equated to the compulsory marriage of Bertram to Helena (Bertram questions this false economics of equivalence: “But follows it, my lord to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” [II:iii]), in a Bachelorette-style gameshow that is rigged in advance in which she nominates Bertram without ever taking any of the French lords seriously as his competitors.  The death of the King is equated to virginity, as virginity is equated to death in Parolles’ campaign against virginity (“He that hangs himself is a virgin; virginity murthers itself, and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature” [I:i]).  The King strikes a balance between Bertram’s loss and Helena’s gain: “Take her by the hand / And tell her she is thine; to whom I promise / A counterpoise, if not to thy estate, / A balance more replete” [II:iii].  A fake equivalence, false equation is again posited, between the sacrifice of Bertram’s social status and the elevation of Helena’s status.  One thing is taken for another, one person is replaced with another, as we see with the replacement of Diana with Helena.  Such is the logic of substitution or the logic of substitutability in All’s Well That Ends Well.

Those literary critics who praise Helena as an innocent are wrong (I am looking at you, Harold Bloom), in the same way that the Countess of Rossillion and Lefew are wrong about her “innocence”: Helena is not saintly, she is not simple, she is not unambiguously honest (unless by “honesty” one intends “virginity”), she is not unambiguously good, she is not uncomplicatedly “virtuous” [I:i].  She is not reducible to the role of the innocent that she plays.  Shakespeare’s characters are not undifferentiated.  His fools tend to be wise, and his characters in general are neither simply good nor simply evil, but rather both good and evil—sometimes, his characters are even good and evil at the same time.  This is stated almost aphoristically in the words of the First Lord, a gentleman whose role seems to be to emphasize that #NotAllMenAreSwine: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp’d them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish’d by our virtues” [IV:iii].  The proto-Nietzschean Shakespeare is ventriloquized through the First Lord, I think.  Both Nietzsche and Shakespeare admonish us against pouring all of humanity into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL.  Shakespearean characters are of overwhelming and self-contradicting complexity, assemblages of oxymoronic elements.

For this reason, those critics who condemn Bertram as a cad are wrong in the same way that Diana is wrong when she calls him simply “not honest” [III:v].  (Let me remark parenthetically that Parolles is the double of Bertram, as Diana is the double of Helena.  Parolles absorbs all of Bertram’s negative traits, particularly the tendency to seduce and impregnate washerwomen.)  (And here is a second set of parentheses: Parolles is also the double of Helena.  He ignores his social status when he refuses to call his lord Bertram “master” [II:iii].)  Those who suggest that Helena shyly longs after a man who is unworthy of her are as wrong as Lefew, who claims that the French lords reject Helena, when it is the other way around.  (I’m still looking at you, Harold Bloom.)  Bertram is a cad, a seducer, yes, but he is not reducible to his caddishness.

Despite her indifference to her father’s death, Helena identifies with her father, Gerard de Narbon, the physician, and uses her father’s recipes to heal the King of France.  When Bertram pleads to the Florentine washerwoman, “[G]ive thyself unto my sick desires” [IV:ii], it is apparent that he is conscious of his own sickness, and it is Helena who will wear the quackish mask of the physician once more.  The first half of the play folds upon the second half: In the first half, Helena cures the King of his ailment; in the second, Helena cures Bertram of the sickness of his lechery—against his will.

When the King’s eyes first alight upon Helena, she seems a radiant presence: “This haste hath wings indeed” [II:i], he says, as if she were a seraphic apparition.  It is Helena’s womanly charm, her femaleness, that resurrects him from the dead: “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak” [Ibid.].  It is her vixenishness that virilizes him.

The King is revived from the dead.  Now, Bertram has lost the right to say, “No” to Helena.  Love for Helena is now equated to the obedience to the King of France: “Thou wrong’st thyself if thou should’st strive to choose [to love Helena]!” [II:iii], the King screams at Bertram.  In other words, “You should not have to choose to love Helena.  I have commanded you to love Helena, and therefore you MUST love Helena.”  The word of the King is law, and to defy the word of the King is misprision.  Behind Helena’s monomaniacal pursuit of Bertram is all of the weight of legal and regal authority.  Love of Helena is bound up with love of the King, and an affront to Helena is an affront to the throne.  This is to say that Bertram is legally and politically obligated to love Helena, as if love is something that could be compelled, coerced, commanded.

Here, the King of France ignores that desire is not logical or causal and is not subject to regal injunction.  Desire cannot be systematized.  We cannot program our minds to love; we cannot download love applications into the smartphones of our minds.

Were she not such a monomaniac, Helena would have let Bertram go after he refuses her, but she does not.  Not once does Helena accept Bertram’s rejection.  Not once does she turn her attention to another man after Bertram scorns her.  Instead, she pretends to relinquish the man she is determined to appropriate: “That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad. / Let the rest go” [II:iii].  When Helena says this, it is accismus, that is, the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.  It is not a statement of resignation.  Nor should one mistake her demand to marry for a marriage proposal.  Helena does not propose marriage; she imposes marriage.

It would have been noble had Helena renounced Bertram upon learning that he is a marriage escapee, that he defected to Italy and entered the Tuscan Wars and a likely death to escape her.  However, this is not what Helena does: Instead, she pursues him to Italy.  Her path of reflection is as follows: “Bertram left France to escape me; therefore, I will leave France, as well—and follow him to Italy.”  Whereas Helena wants presence, Bertram wants absence: “Till I have no wife I have nothing in France” [III:ii], he writes to his mother.  To say that she wants everything would be a gross understatement.  She wants more than everything—she wants to eat her Key Lime Pie and refrigerate it at the same time.

Bertram gives away his six-generation family ring to Helena, who is disguised as a Florentine washerwoman, and this is ring will be returned to him.  The ring seals not only his marriage to Helena, but also seals his marriage to the community / to the collective.  The symbol of the ring is clearly the chief symbol of the play, for treason moves in an annular pattern.  Treachery is circular; treason is circular.  This is the meaning of the difficult and frequently misinterpreted words of the First Lord:

We are, the First Lord says, “[m]erely our own traitors.  And as in the common course of all treasons we still see them reveal themselves till they attain to their abhorr’d ends; so he that in this action contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o’erflows himself” [IV:iii].

I would translate these lines thus: “We human beings are traitors to ourselves.  We betray ourselves in the very act of betrayal.  As we betray others, we betray ourselves—that is, we reveal ourselves as traitors and thus we betray our own betrayals.”  According to a citation in The Oxford English Dictionary, “till” could mean “while” in 1603.  All’s Well That Ends Well is believed to have been written between 1604 and 1605.  If “till” meant “while” in 1603 in England, then this is a justifiable reading of the lines.

All of the main characters are unrepentant traitors, and traitors always betray themselves.  We see treacherous treason in the treacheries of Parolles, of Helena, and of Bertram.

Parolles intends to betray the Florentine army, but ends up betraying military secrets to the Florentine army.

Helena does, in fact, deceive her husband, but this deception ends in legitimized sexual intercourse.  Moreover, she lies when she says that she “embrace[s]” death to “set [Bertram] free” [III:iv], but she does so in order to affirm the sanctity of marriage.  She is a liar who feigns her own death—but she does so in order to honor marriage and thus to honor Elizabethan society.  In the eyes of the world, she has done nothing wrong.  Who could blame her for cozening someone who would unjustly win?  Would could blame her for deceiving her husband in order to sanctify conjugality?  A Casanova in reverse, she takes a honeymoon to Italy and has sex with her husband—only her husband thinks that he is having sex with someone else.  No one is devirginized, except for Bertram’s wife.

Bertram would betray Helena by cheating upon her, but he ends up betraying himself.  He intends to commit adultery on his own wife, but he ends up committing adultery with his wife.

From a purely external / legal / formal point of view, neither sin nor crime has been performed in each case.  In each case, the three characters have sinful intentions, and yet commit no sin.  All’s well that ends in a socially acceptable manner.  It is for this reason that Helena says that the reason within her treasonous marriage plot “[i]s wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact” [III:vii].  And later in the play: “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. / Whatever the course, the end is the renown” [IV:v].  “Fine” here means “ending.”  The formal close of the plot sanctifies all of the deception that came before it.  The ring turns itself around; the end communes with the beginning.  The ring is closed, erasing all of the treachery and deception that was used to forge it.

No one is innocent, and no one is guilty.  Diana implies the innocent guilt of not only Bertram, but of all traitors, when she says: “Because he’s guilty and he is not guilty” [V:iii].  The traitors of the play (Parolles, Helena, and Bertram) are innocent, though their intentions are treasonous.

One character after the other intends to perform a treacherous action, but this action is transmuted into its opposite.  Such is the reversal of language: As the First Lord says to the Second Lord (in reference to a secret that will be communicated by the latter to the former): “When you have spoken it, ’tis dead, and I am the grave of it” [IV:iii].  Language kills.  That is: Language has the tendency to say the exact opposite of what we mean.  When we say or write, “I am lonely,” we cannot be lonely, for we open up the possibility of communication.  When we say or write, “I am sad,” we are not sad enough to stop speaking or writing.

Concerning the intentional errors of language: The bescarfed fool Patrolles misuses words throughout, and this is always Shakespeare’s way of ridiculing characters he does not respect.  For instance, Parolles says “facinerious” instead of “facinorous” [II:iii].  He uses an affected language, such as when he calls Bertram’s defection from marriage a “capriccio” [Ibid.].  He often cannot finish his sentences.  Again and again, his sentences are broken off with em-dashes (this is what rhetoricians call aposiopesis).  And yet there is some sense in his nonsense.  When he intones, “Mort du vinaigre!” [III:iii], this might seem to be mere babble, and yet might it not evoke the crucifixion of Christ, whose broken lips and tongue were said to be moistened by vinegar?  When Parolles is accosted by the Florentines, dressed as Muscovites, they utter gibble-gabble, such as “Boskos vauvado” and “Manka revania dulche” [IV:i].  And yet are they gabbling?  Dulche might invoke Dolch, a German word that means “dagger” (after all, the Florentines-dressed-as-Muscovites are pointing their poniards at Parolles), and boskos might evoke “bosk” or “boscage,” which makes sense, since the scene takes place in a forest.  Even though they are gabbling, there is significance in their gibble-gabble.  Shakespeare cannot allow his writing to be meaningless.  There is, in his writing, a tyranny of meaning.  Even the nonsense in his plays carries sense.

At the end of the play, which does not end well, and which therefore belies its own title, Bertram acknowledges that his wife is his wife, but he does so in formalistic and legalistic language: “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” [V:iii].  In other words, “I love you because I am socially, legally, and politically obligated to love you.”  He speaks as if the knowledge of information led to desire, as if the confirmation of a legal contract necessarily issued in passion.  Indeed, Helena has proven that she has fulfilled both conditions of the contract: that she pull the ring from his finger and that she produce a child of whom he is the father.  The ring is given as evidence to Helena’s kangaroo court; the parturition of the child is demonstrated, as if this were the Elizabethan version of a talk-show paternity test.  It is probable, however, that Bertram intended “ring” and “child” as metaphors—and yet Helena takes the letter as the law.  Helena literalizes what might have been intended metaphorically.

Is the social, legal, and political obligation to love another human being not the definition of marriage?  Kant defined marriage as the mutual leasing of each other’s genital organs, and philosophers since Hegel have criticized his glacial definition.  But was Kant incorrect?  All’s Well That Ends Well implies essentially the same thing.  It could be said, with only slight exaggeration or overstatement, that this play is a work of misogamy in contrast to the epithalamia Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Shakespeare’s most problematical comedy would suggest that marriage is the lie of all lies, the hoax of all hoaxes, and should be avoided by anyone who values solitude, privacy, and freedom.

When Bertram submits to the will of Helena and the will of the King the first time, it is hardly a profession of love: “I find that she, which late / Was in my nobler thoughts most base, is now / The praised of the king; who, so ennobled, / Is as ’twere born so” [II:iii].  This is the least erotic assent to marry someone that has ever been articulated.

“All yet seems well” [V:iii; emphasis mine].  There is the semblance of a happy closure, the simulation of a happy ending.  Simply because the circle has closed in a formal sense, this does not mean that anyone is happy.  All’s Well That Ends Well does not end well.  All is not well in All’s Well That Ends Well.  All’s ill that ends well.

Joseph Suglia

Polyptoton: Greg Gutfeld: Not Cool: The Hipster Elite and Their [sic] War on You

Polyptoton: Not Cool: The Hipster Elite and Their [sic] War on You (Greg Gutfeld) by Joseph Suglia

Greg Gutfeld writes with all of the elegance of a demented leprechaun, with all of the sophistication of a gutbucket guitar.  Gutfeld, a writer without a working gut-hammer, is gutted of all integrity.  I have guttled down thousands of books in my life, but this is the only one that seems gutlessly written.  To be charitable, perhaps Gutfeld has reserved his gutsiest staves for his television program.  I found it difficult to gut it out and finish his book, which is a complete gutter ball.

Joseph Suglia

NOSFERATU (1979) by Werner Herzog

An Analysis of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979)

by Joseph Suglia

Was aus Liebe getan wird, geschieht immer jenseits von Gut und Böse.

“Whatever is done out of love always occurs beyond Good and Evil.”

–Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse: Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft / Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future

Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979) is less a film about the struggle between Good and Evil than it is a film about the triumph of all-consuming Eros over theology.  Each of the film’s personages–Count Dracula, Lucy, Jonathan Harker–are seized by a destructively violent passion.  Their desires are one.  They are victims of a violent desire that exists on the other side of mortality, on the other side of Good and Evil.

All three characters mirror each other at certain crucial points.

Kinski’s Nosferatu is He-Who-Desires: an incarnation which is curiously effeminate but also strangely virile, virtually androgynous, neither man nor woman.  His vampire is leech-like, parasitical, much frailer and sicklier than other, more robust screen vampires (Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, etc.).  When Jonathan eats his dinner, Nosferatu stares at his quarry’s neck like a hound in rut.  He has no existence outside of the living beings upon whom he feeds.  So intensely enamored of Lucy’s neck is Nosferatu that he is willing to leave his castle in Transylvania just to be near her.  And when Nosferatu comes to Bremen, he brings the plague with him.  His untrammeled desire for Lucy is pestilential, a cloud of rats.  His all-enveloping love, his polymorphic attraction, is what brings the pestilence.  Sexual desire is the plague.  In this film, desire is figured as disease.  A plague that ends in the “festive” destruction of Western civilization, a round dance in which animals and humans mingle, a joyful plague of “perverse” sexuality.

Jonathan Harker is Nosferatu’s double–willing to give up everything, willing to risk death, to go any extreme for the sake of his beloved, Lucy.  And at the eerily open-ended conclusion of the film (and this is Herzog’s most drastic departure from the original), Jonathan assumes the vampire’s role completely.  He effectively becomes his nemesis.  There are no end credits; the film continues infinitely.  The final image is of a spreading desolation, the reign of negativity and the annihilation of civilization (which, as usual in Herzog, is affirmed as a joyous event—from what we see of civilization in this film, it doesn’t appear worth saving; the annihilation of all social laws is here seen as something positive).  Nosferatu nowhere dies in the space of the film.  Indeed, Nosferatu’s tragedy is not death but the impossibility of death.

In her conversation with Nosferatu, Lucy makes a startling proclamation: She is willing to refuse to God the love that she gives to Jonathan.  Her unreserved, unholy desire for Jonathan surmounts her piety, her faith in God.  Does this not bind her intimately with Nosferatu, the force of entropic negativity?  By refusing God the love she gives to her man, she migrates to the country of darkness.  With her spectral pallor, she is uncannily resemblant of Nosferatu.  When he visits her in the bedroom, she embraces him, her dark lover, pulling him to her neck.  Is this nothing more than a self-sacrifice for the sake of the people of Bremen?  For Jonathan’s sake?  Perhaps.  But after Nosferatu is vanquished, why does the blood rush to her cheeks?  And why, after Nosferatu has sapped her blood, why does she bask in what seems to be a post-coital glow?

Each of these characters is a victim of the suicidal character of all sexual desire.

There are so many details in this film that will haunt your mind.  Kinski’s ghastly rat-like features, the murine parasite.  The way in which the camera makes you his victim, fresh for vampirization.  The way in which all relations are inverted.  Sickness surmounts health.  Survival surmounts both death and life.

Unlike F.W. Murnau’s 1922 original, the images in Herzog’s film are not symbolic–that is, they do not subserve character or language.  The images are restored to their purity and form a pre-conceptual, pre-rational, pre-critical visual language all their own.

Ultimately, Nosferatu‘s (1979) greatest virtue is that it includes an acting performance by one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century, someone who is never acknowledged as one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century.  His name is Roland Topor.

Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (Shakespeare)

An Analysis of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

Nicht, dass gekämpft wird, ist das Tragische der Welt.  Sie selbst ist das Tragische.

—Christian Morgenstern, Stufen

Troilus and Cressida (circa 1603) does not seem to belong in the age in which it was written.  This disenchantingly sordid play belongs to modernity.  It demythologizes war, it demythologizes love, it demythologizes heroism, it demythologizes the supernatural.  The sour luridness of the play, its fetid atmosphere, is so suffocating that it has obscured its status as one of the greatest works that Shakespeare ever composed.


Seven years deep into the Trojan-Grecian War, the Grecians and the Trojans alike are wracked with fatigue, demoralized, and insensitive to rank (e.g. Achilles is so arrogant that he dallies in bed with his male lover Petroclus instead of strategizing with the general).  Shakespeare reminds us, again and again, the war is not the glorious campaign that it is in Homer.

There is in this play an erotics of war.  By this phrase, I do not intend that the play beautifies war; I mean that it eroticizes war by conflating the martial and the erotic.  There is in the play a kind of erotic bellicosity and bellicose eroticism.  We see this when Aeneas issues a challenge to the Greeks: Let one of them defend the wisdom, beauty, and faithfulness of their lady (Greece) against the superior wisdom, beauty, and faithfulness of Hector’s lady (Troy): “[Hector] hath a lady, wiser, fairer, truer, / Than ever Greek did compass in his arms” [I:iii].

The entire Trojan-Grecian War is based on one man’s libidinal desires: Paris’ lust for Helen, Menelaus’ stolen wife.  The play suggests this to us through its raisonneurs, Hector, Thersites, Cassandra, and Diomedes.  So much blood is spilled over a “whore and a cuckold” [II:iii], as the divine slave Thersites phrases it: “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion” [V:ii].  Blood and death eventuate from one man’s sexual itchings.

Of course, Paris says the opposite.  “Sir,” Paris says to his father, the King of Troy, “I propose not merely to myself / The pleasures that such a beauty [Helen] brings with it” [II:ii].  But who believes him?  “[Y]ou speak / Like one besotted on your own sweet delights” [Ibid.], Priam says of his son Paris.  And is it not true?  Paris believes that the capture of one woman, the woman for whom he lusts, is worth infinitely more than the lives of the hundreds of thousands of men who are canalized into the slaughterhouse of war.  He also believes that his own ecstatic transports are worth more than the sorrow of the men and women who will mourn over the dead.

It would be facile to say that the play is anti-war.  It is anti-war, but it is anti-love in the same measure.  Love leads inexorably to betrayal—or, at least, to the perception of betrayal.  It is never entirely clear whether Cressida betrays Troilus or Troilus betrays himself.  Young Troilus ends up hating the woman he once loved, which spurs him to hack away at the enemy.  Its disenchantment with love removes the play from peacenik causes.

In all love, there is war, but one could evaginate this proposition: In all love, there is war, and in all war, there is love.  Troilus and Cressida suggests the interpenetration of love and war in each scene.  Empedocles knew well that love and conflict, attraction and repulsion, Philia and Neikos, were intimately bound together, and we see this Empedoclean dialectic bodied forth in Shakespeare’s play.  War issues from love, as love is riven by war.

Before his love transforms into hatred, Troilus sees Cressida as a spoil of war, as booty that is worth fighting over.  His infatuation with Cressida is the economic infatuation of a war-profiteer.  He says of Cressida: “Her bed is India; there she lies, a pearl” [I:i].  She is an exotic land to be conquered.  Helen is first likened to semen-stained bedsheets, then also likened to a pearl.  Troilus says of Helen, “We turn not back the silks upon the merchant / When we have soiled them” [II:ii].  Then: “Why, she is a pearl / Whose price hath launched above a thousand ships” [Ibid.].  Troilus is likely a virgin—or one who has been revirginized in the Virgin Machine—and, like many virgins, conflates the ecstasy of love with the ecstasy of death: “What will it be, / When that the water’y palates taste indeed / Love’s thrice-reputed nectar?  Death, I fear me, / Swooning destruction, or some joy too fine, / Too subtle-potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness, / For the capacity of my ruder powers” [III:ii].  As Troilus reminds us earlier, there is a battle going on within the walls of Troy—it is a battle for Cressida’s desire.  “[P]ress it to death,” Pandarus says of the bed in which Troilus and Cressida will couple [III:ii].  Again and again, there is war-in-love and love-in-war.

The paradox of war-in-love and love-in-war can be seen in the antiphrasis of friendly enmity that runs throughout the play.  The warriors are friendly enemies and hostile friends.  Grecian embraces Trojan, as Trojan embraces Grecian.  The Trojan Hector embraces his Grecian cousin Ajax.  Ulysses and Troilus become Best Friends Forever, despite the fact that Ulysses is Grecian and Troilus belongs to the other side.  Enemies volley a fusillade of affectionate insults at one another.  They insult one another fondly.  Paris, overhearing Aeneas and Diomedes railing against each other lovingly, says that this is “the most despiteful’st gentle greeting, / The noblest hateful love, that e’er I heard of” [IV:i].  Diomedes, speaking to Paris, is never more admirable than when he condemns the unholy carnage of the war for the losses that it has inflicted on both sides.  “For every false drop in [Helen’s] bawdy veins,” Diomedes says to Paris, “A Grecian’s life has sunk; for every scruple / Of her contaminated carrion weight / A Trojan hath been slain” [IV:i].  The Grecian general Agamemnon gives Aeneas, emissary of the Trojan army, a feast and the “welcome of a noble foe” [I:iii].  Hector, on safe conduct, feasts with the Grecians, etc., etc.  Characters are friendlier to their enemies than they are to their friends; there are fractions within factions.  Enemies are loyal to one another with the piety of traitors.


Pandarus panders—as his name suggests, he is a pimp, a procurer.  He solicits his own niece Cressida to Troilus and seems to care more about the promise of Troilus’ erotic victory than he does about Cressida’s state of mind when Pandarus learns that Cressida has become a commodity that will be gifted to the Greeks in exchange for the enfranchisement of the prisoner Antenor.  This comes about thanks to the traitor Calchas, Cressida’s father, who is every bit of an agent of mediation, every bit of a “broker-lackey” [V:xi], as Pandarus is.  Calchas solicits his daughter Cressida, as Pandarus panders Cressida his niece.

Troilus cannot come to Cressida except by way of her uncle Pandarus.  This is yet another instantiation of what I have called elsewhere “the intervention of the third”: The one cannot relate to the other except by way of the mediator.  And yet, even though Pandarus is a mediator, he is a mediator who mediates nothing.  All of his intercessions, all of his intermediations, are in vain.

Whenever the two lovers meet, Pandarus is there, hovering in the background.  “So, so, rub on, and kiss the mistress,” he urges Troilus [III:ii].  “Have you not done talking yet?” [Ibid.], he says to the young lovers and “Go to, go to” [Ibid.], egging them on to put on a sex show while he slaveringly leers.  He is clearly prostituting his niece—presenting her as a “picture,” as a pornographic icon for his scopophilic pleasure: “Come, draw this curtain, and let’s see your picture” [III:ii].  Pandarus’ scopophilia extends so far that he projects himself through the medium of the imagination into his niece’s body.  “Well, Troilus, well, I would my heart were in her body” [I:ii], Pandarus says of his niece.

Shakespeare keeps reminding us, unto the final line of the play, that Pandarus is a syphilitic pimp.  “My business seethes,” he says to the subtly deprecating Servant [III:i]—but the Elizabethans knew what the word seethe connoted.  Shakespeare does not let us forget that seething connotes STDs and the sweating treatment that was used to cure them.  In the play’s last verse, Pandarus threatens to “bequeath [his] diseases” to the spectators [V:xi].  It is indeed a sodden and sordid play that ends with the imaginary transference of venereal diseases to the audience.


Troilus and Cressida contains a logic of exchangeability: Characters are fungible, and they interchange with one another.  Paris substitutes for Menelaus as Helen’s new lover.  Cressida substitutes for Antenor (her transference to Grecians liberates the imprisoned Antenor), and Achilles is replaced by Ajax.  As Ulysses says, “Ajax employed plucks down Achilles’ plumes” [II:i].  Calchas and Ulysses are both agents who effect substitution.  Calchas solicits his daughter in exchange for Antenor; the ever-crafty Ulysses exchanges Ajax for Achilles.

Most interestingly, we see the logic of substitutability, of taking-one-for-another, in the romance between Troilus and Cressida.  Cressida is the replacement for Helen, as Troilus is the replacement for Menelaus, and Diomedes is the replacement for Paris.  Just as Menelaus was cuckolded by Paris, Troilus will be cuckolded by Diomedes.  One cuckold replaces another cuckold; one conflict replaces another conflict.  Here is the dreary repetition of war prompted by sexual jealousy.  The conflict between Troilus and Diomedes repeats the conflict between Paris and Menelaus—this suggests that erotically generated war will never cease.

When he lines up to Kiss the Girl with the rest of the Grecian army, Menelaus is the only suitor who is refused by Cressida.  Could this be because he is superannuated, irrelevant, having been replaced by a newer cuckold—namely, by Troilus?

Such is the cosmic irony of the play: The Trojans refuse to give up the Queen of the Greeks, Helen, but willingly give up Trojan-born Cressida.  Troilus presents specious arguments against giving back Helen to the Greeks, and yet his own beloved Cressida is given to the Greeks instead.  History is presented as a series of infinite permutations; the same elements are infinitely rearranged.


Characters refer to themselves in the third person, a practice which is usually coincident with a beclouded mind.  “O foolish Cressid” [IV:ii], which Cressida says of herself, is one example of this.

Troilus, Cressida, and Pandarus historicize themselves—or are conscious of their being-in-history.  Troy claims to be as “true as Troilus”; Cressida says that she should be known as “false as Cressid” [III:ii], if she betrays Troilus.  Pandarus affirms, “Let all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers-between panders” [III:ii].  And this auto-reflexivity is unimpugnable: Literate people today do indeed associate faithful men with Troilus, faithless women with Cressida, and officious mediators with Pandarus.

When Achilles kills Hector, he does so by way of a trick.  He waits for Hector to unarm himself.  Achilles does not even kill Hector himself—he has his Myrmidons do the dirty work for him.  His Myrmidons ambush Hector when he is vulnerable.  The murder of Hector and the grotesque desecration of his carcass are recreant and dishonorable—and yet this is championed and broadcast as if it were the result of valor and fair play.

“On Myrmidons, and cry you all amain, / ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’”  The quotation marks are important.  This is an act of speech and an act of writing that will be transmitted to the ages—the news is fake, but the fake news will be memorialized.  All historical memory is fake news, Shakespeare appears to suggest.

The characters have historical consciousness—that is, they are conscious of their place in historical memory.  They anticipate their reception in the future.  They are conscious of their own status as representations in the future perfect; they are conscious of their readers and spectators.  They are conscious of their reverberations through the abysses of time.


There is almost no supernaturalism at all in the play.  Whereas in Homer, the gods and goddesses, such as Athena and Aphrodite, intervene in human affairs and shape the Trojan-Athenian War, there are no gods in Troilus and Cressida.  The closest we, as readers, come to the supernatural is by way of the brief appearance of the Sagittary—who is half-horse, half-man—the only creature who could be described as mythopoeticized.  All of the other characters are human, all-too-human.

The play demythologizes both gods and heroes alike.

Most of the so-called Grecian and Trojan “heroes” are lazy, languid, lethargic, including Paris, who lounges about with his stolen mistress instead of battling against the enemy: “I would fain have armed today, but my Nell would not have it so” [III:i], he says to Pandarus.

Ajax, who is best known for having been bedeviled by Athena and bewitched into slaughtering sheep, is a “blockish” blockhead [I:iii].

Shakespeare’s Achilles is not the great warrior of the Illiad.  Shakespeare’s Achilles is a layabout, lying in bed with his ladyboy Petroclus, who is described by Thersites as Achilles’ “male varlet” and as his “masculine whore” [V:i].  In the first scene of the second act, Petroclus is characterized by Thersites as a “brach,” an obsolete word that means “bitch hound,” “fawning hanger-on,” “prostitute,” or “catamite.”

In Hellenic mythology, Cassandra was cursed with unbelievableness by Apollo for refusing his advances.  In Shakespeare, however, Cassandra is believed by Hector, at least.  He commends her “high strains / [o]f divination” as genuine signs of prophecy [II:ii].  Her ravings are dismissed by Troilus as “brain-sick raptures” [Ibid.]—but this is the imputation of pathology.  The point is not that Cassandra’s augury is pathologized by Troilus; the point is that she is not divinely sibylline.  There is no evidence that she was ever gifted with prophecy by Apollo or cursed with unbelievableness by Apollo.  Shakespeare breaks with the myth.

The general of the Greek army is openly slighted by Aeneas and Achilles, Menelaus is presented as a drowsy cuckold, and Helen, who hardly appears at all, appears as a non-entity.  Achilles and Petroclus mock their fellows in the Grecian army, “break[ing] scurril jests, [pageanting them] with ridiculous and awkward action—which, slanderer, [Achilles] imitation calls” [I:iii].  Thersites mocks everyone indiscriminately.  All of the great heroes of Greek mythology are subjected to deposition.


Troilus and Cressida is a fractured, disjointed play. The failed romance between Troilus and Cressida, which is itself elliptical, is elliptically presented. Instead of a sustained, continuous presentation, the play appears as a series of vignettes or tableaux vivants.

Not merely is the form of the play fragmentary; the characters are fragmentary, as well.  Ajax is described by Alexander, Cressida’s man-in-waiting, as the agglomeration of scissile animal parts (he is of elephant, lion, and bear) [I:ii].  In the fifth scene of the fourth act, Ajax is characterized by his cousin Hector as the agglutination of fissile Grecian and Trojan parts.

And what of Cressida?  Who is Cressida, in herself?  The answer is that she is self-doubling.  At first, it might seem that either she dislikes Troilus or she is pretending to dislike him.  But this is a false dichotomy.  One of her selves likes Troilus; another one of her selves dislikes Troilus.  She has a fissiparous self—that is to say, she has a multiplicity of selves rather than a single self.  She is divided into a “kind of self” and another “unkind self” [III:ii], a self that is loyal to Troilus and a self that betrays Troilus.  She says to Troilus: “I have a kind of self resides with you, / But an unkind self that itself will leave / To be another’s fool” [Ibid.].

The self-duplication of Cressida prompts Troilus to say, “This is and is not Cressid” [V:ii], when he sights her at Diomedes’ camp.  One should observe her ambiguous conduct: She both gives and snatches back the sleeve that Troilus pledged to her—she is both faithless and faithful, both disloyal and loyal.

There is a misogynistic logic in Troilus’ thinking: If one woman is impure, he suggests, then all women are impure.  “Think, we had mothers” [V:ii], he says to Ulysses.  Since mothers are pure, he implies, and since mothers exist, how could any one woman be impure?  Epexegesis: It could not have been Cressida that he saw, since Cressida is a woman, and if the Being He Saw were a woman, this would impugn all womanhood.

As the play opens, Troilus urges the gods to reveal her selfsameness to him: “What Cressid is” [I:ii].  And yet Cressida is not One Thing, not a unified substance, not a substantialized, hypostatized self.  On the one hand, she is dedicated to Troilus.  On the other hand, she is doubtful of Troilus’ bedroom performance skills and seems hesitant to take things further with him: Men “swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform,” she says to Troilus [III:ii].

Cressida herself will be inaccessible, for she knows the finitude of male desire: Once a man gets what he wants, he doesn’t want it anymore.  Once a man gets the woman he wants, he doesn’t want her anymore.  Cressida says in the one scene in which she is alone: “Men prize the thing ungained more than it is” [I:ii].  She will be inaccessible, therefore; she will never be only One Thing.

Disenchanting love, disenchanting war, disenchanting heroism, disenchanting theophany, disenchanting the world of the supernatural—all of these forms of disenchantment make of Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare’s most curiously futuristic play.  It looks backward in order to look forward.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

STUCK! by Steve Balderson

An Analysis of STUCK! (2009) by Joseph Suglia

If you want to properly understand Steve Balderson’s fourth feature film, Stuck! (2009), you must disabuse yourself of the illusion that it is all a joke.  Balderson is not engaging in parody, or satire, or camp.  His film is blissfully free of irony.  There is no smugness here, no attempt to levitate above its story with postmodernist cynicism.  Balderson’s film demands to be taken seriously, despite its more felicitous moments.

The easiest way to describe Stuck! would be to say that it follows the downward slide of a Midwestern girl named Daisy (played by the angelic Starina Johnson) from innocence to corruption–or her ascension from fragility to strength.  Daisy is the victim of the trumped-up charge of killing her mother (September Carter in one of the film’s strongest performances), sentenced to death by hanging, and incarcerated.  In prison, she keeps company with a religious fanatic (Mink Stole), a predatory obsessive (Pleasant Gehman), a serial widow (Susan Traylor), and a withdrawn infanticide who suffers from echolalia (the Go-Gos’ beautiful Jane Wiedlin).  All these women have to make their lives tolerable are music, passion, storytelling, and the desire for revenge.

From a narrow perspective, there are clichés–because clichés are unavoidable when developing any story that is set in a prison.  Balderson and screenwriter Frank Krainz had a difficult decision to make.  They could have resolved that no clichés would materialize in the space of their production (and thus have fallen prey to them).  Instead, they made the more intelligent decision and welcomed and affirmed the women-in-prison conventions that appear in their film.  They do not sneer at the clichés, affecting the smug, self-complacent revisionism of Jonathan Demme (Caged Heat) or John McNaughton (Girls in Prison).  Rather, they expand the clichés to their breaking point, infuse them with new life, and thus reinvent them from within.  Balderson’s world is not an etiolated world: Every cliché is richly personalized, defamiliarized, transformed into something other than a cliché.

The film is absolutely beautiful to watch, from the Dreyeresque close-ups of Starina Johnson, whose suffering is palpable in nearly every frame, to the Godardian jump-cuts, to the painterly images of the prison cells, which the inmates decorate with talismans and totems.  Seldom has black-and-white been used so colorfully.

It would be impossible to do justice to Stuck! without meditating on its more carnal elements.  This is a very erotic film, but it is not a work of eroticism.  Eroticism, by definition, is not erotic.  Why?  Because eroticism focuses upon the body and ignores the soul–and nothing is less erotic than a soulless body.  Cinematic eroticism, in particular, is a mass spectacle of stinking, putrefying carcasses.  If Stuck! is erotic, that is because we, as viewers, come to know Daisy as a dreaming, feeling, thinking, LIVING human being.  Starina Johnson gives off erotic sparks for reasons that have nothing to do with soma, for reasons that have nothing to do with physicality.  She represents the perfect synthesis of innocence and sexiness, radiating a light-heartedness and deep sensuality in everything that she does, in her every gesture and delicately nuanced facial expression.  Her character only gradually becomes conscious of what we notice from the very beginning: the power of her charm.  “What is sexy?” Balderson asked in a parvum opusPhone Sex (2006).  He never asked me, but if he did, I would have replied: What is “sexy” is self-consciousness, the consciousness of one’s own sexiness.  And Stuck! is sexy because its characters–particularly those of Starina Johnson and Pleasant Gehman–are conscious of the electricity of their sensuality and especially in a stunningly powerful lovemaking scene in which neither lover removes her clothing.  By unwrapping the body only after he reveals the soul, Balderson, same-sexualist, has proven that he has greater insight into the dynamics of heteroerotic desire than any heterosexual filmmaker.

To say that Stuck! is the finest women-in-prison film ever made would be to say too little.  It recalls not primarily the women-in-prison genre, but rather the German Expressionist-inspired American noir of the 1950s and 1960s.  If you have seen Daughter of Horror (1955), Carnival of Souls (1962), Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss (1964), or Spider Baby (1968), you know that to which I am referring.  If one insists upon calling it a “women-in-prison film,” then it must be conceded that Stuck! is easily the only women-in-prison film that could justifiably be called a serious work of art.

Joseph Suglia

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Shakespeare): An analysis by Dr. Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

If Much Ado about Nothing (1598/1599) is about anything at all, it is about the social character of all desire, about the triangulations that make desire possible.  Love comes about as a conspiracy.  That is: Love is the result of a conspiracy.  A love-relation is not an isolated relation between two individuals who feel affection for each other.  Love-relations are arranged by the community.  They have nothing to do with individual desires and feelings of fondness.  It is the community that decides who loves whom.  It is the community that makes love-relations possible.

We get a sense of this in the very first scene of the play.  Claudio confesses to his lord Don Pedro, Spanish prince, that he is attracted to Hero, daughter to Leonato.  Immediately, Don Pedro imposes upon his subject.  He will be Claudio’s intercessor:

The fairest grant is the necessity. / Look what will serve is fit.  ’Tis once, thou lovest; / And I will fit thee with the remedy. / I know we shall have reveling to-night; / I will assume thy part in some disguise, / And tell fair Hero I am Claudio; / And in her bosom I’ll unclasp my heart, / And take her hearing prisoner with the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale. / Then, after, to her father will I break; / And the conclusion is she shall be thine. / In practice let us put it presently [I:i].

Notice the metaphors: Don Pedro is a doctor who will supply the “remedy” to Claudio’s erotic sickness.

Why, precisely, must Don Pedro intervene in the prospective love affair between Claudio and Hero?  Why does Claudio not speak of his desires in his own name?  Why does Claudio not do the courting himself?  Why does he require someone above his station to seduce his inamorata?  Why must Don Pedro be his consigliere?

The answer seems to be that desire always requires a third.  A third party, a mediator, a matrimonial go-between, a manipulator, an intermediary.  Rene Girard is quite brilliant on this point—for his discussion of mimetic desire in Much Ado about Nothing, read pages 80-91 of A Theatre of Envy.

Before he learns that Don Pedro’s matchmaking operation has been successful, Claudio forswears his lord, the mediator: “Let every eye negotiate for itself, / And trust no agent” [II:i].  Afterwards, he accepts that all love requires what I have called elsewhere “the intervention of the third.”

As we will eventually discover, Don Pedro takes an erotic interest in his subordinates’ lovers.  (He flirts openly with Beatrice in Act Two: Scene One.)  And yet his eroticism resides in the role of the mediator, not that of the actor.  Don Pedro insists on bringing both Beatrice, who has renounced all men, and Benedick, who has renounced all women, into a “mountain of affection” (an allusion, perhaps, to Seignior Montanto?).

Don Pedro, the most powerful human being in the play, makes the following statement:

I will… undertake one of Hercules’ labours; which is to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’ one with th’ other. I would fain have it a match; and I doubt not but to fashion it if you three [Leonato, Hero, and Claudio] will but minister such assistance as I shall give you direction [II:i].

Notice the use of the verb “fashion.”  Notice the reference to Hercules and his twelve labors.  What chthonic beast will he slay?  Notice that it is Don Pedro who desires the match (“I would fain have it a match”), not Beatrice or Benedick.

And a few lines later, Don Pedro gives us this rodomontade:

I will teach you [Hero] how to humour your cousin [Beatrice] that she shall fall in love with Benedick; and I, with your two helps [Claudio and Leonato], will so practice on Benedick that, in despite of his quick wit and his queasy stomach, he shall fall in love with Beatrice. If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer: his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods [Ibid.].

Notice the irreligious way in which Don Pedro’s speech ends.  Shakespeare always refuses extra-worldly transcendence.

This is no intercession on the behalf of a mooning lover (as was the case with Claudio).  This is a conspiracy of marriage.  Just as Signior John and Borachio sabotage the marriage plans of Claudio and Hero, Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato fashion the marriage of Beatrice and Benedick.  When Seignior John slanders Hero, is this not the exact obverse of what Don Pedro, Hero, and Leonato have done to Beatrice and Benedick?

Ensconced in the arbor, Benedick quickly changes his mind about women and marriage when he overhears his friends talking about Beatrice’s affections for him.  He eavesdrops upon Claudio, Leonato, and Don Pedro, all three of whom praise Beatrice.  Perhaps this is the clincher (spoken by Don Pedro):

I would she had bestowed this dotage on me; I would have daff’d all other respects and made her half myself [II:iii].

“All other respects” is an allusion to the class divide between Don Pedro and Beatrice.   When he hears these words, Benedick falls in love with Beatrice, I suspect.  His superior desires Beatrice.  So must he.

In a series of asides, Claudio likens his friend to a “kid fox,” a “fowl,” and a “fish” [Ibid.]—all three metaphorical animals are to be trapped.  Benedick himself is the quarry, the beast who is entrapped in the matrimonial cage.

The exact scene is replicated in the third act.  Ensconced in the arbor, Beatrice quickly changes her mind about men and marriage when she overhears her friends talking about Benedick’s affection for her.  Hero—Beatrice’s rival—praises Benedick:

“He is the only man of Italy, / Always excepted my dear Claudio” [III:i].

Ursula, lady-in-waiting to Hero, says in an aside: “She’s lim’d, I warrant you; we have caught her, madam” [Ibid.].  “Liming” refers to a trick that bird-hunters used to catch birds.

Hero’s reply: “If it proves so, then loving goes by haps: / Some Cupid kills with arrows, some traps” [Ibid.].

She utters what are utterly the worst lines in Shakespeare, with the exception of Hamlet’s “The play’s the thing.  / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”  More importantly, she casts light on one of the play’s most pronounced meanings: The one does not relate to the other except by way of the intervention of the third.

Ultimately, Much Ado about Nothing is conjugal propaganda.  And are not all of the Shakespearean comedies marriage propaganda (with the exception of Love’s Labour’s Lost, All’s Well that Ends Well, and The Winter’s Tale, which are not even “comedies” in the Shakespearean sense of that word)?  Much Ado about Nothing is a play in which the principal characters get married, whether they want to or not.  The misogamist and misogynist Benedick is married, almost against his will.  The misogamist and misandrist Beatrice is married, almost against her will.  Claudio is married to a woman whose face is disguised with a veil.  The exception to the marriage plot is Seignior John, who, we are told, is a bastard.  A melancholic bastard.  And those who were born illegitimately will die without ever being married and cuckolded.

What saves the play from being one of Shakespeare’s worst is the immense power of the first scene of its fourth act and Beatrice, one of Shakespeare’s most living female creations.  Were it not for the crisis of Act Four: Scene One and the divine Beatrice, Much Ado about Nothing would be nothing more than an Elizabethan beach blanket bingo that ends with the characters swiveling and beveling their hips.

Joseph Suglia


An Analysis of The Passion of the Christ (2004) by Joseph Suglia

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) is a personal film.  An exceedingly, excessively, earnestly personal film.  “Personal” to the point of autobiography.  It is not merely a personal reinterpretation of the Jesus myth, but a hand-wringingly serious appropriation of that myth for the sake of a deeply personal program.

What that “deeply personal program” might be is worth pondering.  The film focuses on the condemnation, scourging, and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth; the rest of his life is almost entirely bracketed out.  We see snapshots of his past in the form of flashbacks.  But these flashbacks seem forced.  They appear to be designed to make the torture seem relevant, i.e. “religiously” meaningful.

The film has an independent investment in brutality, in cruelty.  One suspects that Gibson has a particular interest in cruelty for cruelty’s sake–not for any “transcendent” purpose.

It is not accidental that The Passion of the Christ has horror-cinematic elements: the attack on Judas at the hands of screeching daemon-children, the ubiquitous presence of an androgynous Satan, the demotion of someone-or-other to Hell, etc.  The Passion of the Christ is, sensu stricto, a horror film.

Throughout, Jesus’s voluntary assumption of his torture and death is emphasized.  One of the strongest images in the film has The Christ embrace his own crucifix as if it were a lover.  It is repeatedly stressed in this work that Jesus loves his persecutors, loves his persecutions, and welcomes and affirms his own death.

Of course, there is scriptural evidence to support Jesus’s affirmation of his own mortality.  “How blest you are, when you suffer insults and persecution and every kind of calumny for my sake.  Accept it with gladness and exultation, for you have a rich reward in heaven; in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you” [Matthew 5:11-12].  Anyone who has read the Gospels and the Gnostic texts, such as The Gospel of Judas, knows that Jesus’ persecutors were acting according to a divinely ordained, prestabilized plan–a plan that Jesus had accepted in advance.

The undeniable accent on self-imposed violence, however, exceeds any “religious” justification.  There is a kind of bloodlust in this film, a joy in the systematic reduction of a human body to dead, shredded meat.  Religiosity, in this context, is used as a mere pretext for eroticized violence.

The Passion of the Christ is a violently pornographic film.  It portrays violence as something that is deeply gratifying.  It presents consumable representations of violence.  Predictably, the film’s creator and promoter is self-deceptive, dishonest, about its sadomasochistic dimensions.

Post scriptum: How is it possible that The Dreamers (2003) received an NC-17 rating for a smattering of male nudity and this film did not?  A “religious” subtext pacifies the MPAA, it seems…

Joseph Suglia

THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy / A Negative Review of THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

My analysis was cited in Marco Caracciolo’s article “Narrative Space and Readers’ Responses to Stories: A Phenomenological Account,” Style. Vol. 47, No. 4, Narrative, Social Neuroscience, Plus Essays on Hecht’s Poetry, Hardy’s Fiction, and Kathy Acker (Winter 2013), pp. 425-444. Print.

An Analysis of THE ROAD (Cormac McCarthy) by Joseph Suglia

“When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it…”

—Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985) is something of an undergraduate exercise.  It is a Faulknerian pastiche and, above all, hedonistic.  Hedonism, as far as I’m concerned, is an enemy of art.  Whereas Blood Meridian is verbally expansive, the language of McCarthy’s The Road (2006) is strictly delimited.

We follow a nameless father and son as they wander through a post-American void, a “blastosphere,” to use J.G. Ballard’s term.  (Blastosphere = Not the blastula, but the “implicit shape of the way matter is perturbed by an explosion” (Will Self)).  They scavenge for food and tools.  They encounter those who seemingly show their seamiest impulses and who behave in an unseemly manner.

And yet I suspect that this is less a novel about a post-apocalyptic future than it is one about our atheological present.  It is a theological allegory about a world from which the gods are manifestly absent.  Eine gottesverlassene und gottesvergessene Welt.

We find grounds for this supposition in those passages in which the grey waste is described as “godless” [4] and “coldly secular” [274] and wastes of human flesh are named “creedless” [28].

“On this road there are no godspoke men” [32].

The worst thing that could be written about The Road is that it is a sappy religious allegory.  Nabokov wrote of Faulkner’s Light in August:

“The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which also spoils Mauriac’s work.”

I would write of McCarthy’s The Road:

The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which does not pervade Faulkner’s work.

This does not mean that the book is unredeemable, however.  What might have been a pedestrian trifle in the hands of a lesser writer has become something genuinely pedestrian with author McCarthy.  The most distinctive feature of The Road is not the story that is told, but the manner in which McCarthy tells it: that is to say, the narrative.  He writes so magically that a grey empty world is summoned forth vividly before our eyes.

It needs to be said and emphasized that McCarthy has almost completely superseded standard English punctuation in the writing of this novel.  He strategically, willfully omits periods, commas, semicolons, and apostrophes throughout the work in order to equivocate, in order to multiply meanings, in order to enlarge the literary possibilities of language.

The relative absence of punctuation in the novel makes the words appear as if they were the things themselves.  Of course, one could seize upon the conscious, literal meaning of the words.  But does language not slip away from us?  Are its meanings not dependent on the interpretive framework of the listener, of the reader?  And is it not conceivable that the linguistic elisions reflect the consciousness of the central character?

Proper punctuation would disambiguate and thus flatten the sentences–sentences that are, liberated from such restrictions, both benign and lethal.  We have before us a rhetorically complex novel, a work of literature that is rife with ambiguity.

And the non-punctuation makes us feel.  If the “sentences” were punctuated in the traditional manner, we, as readers, would feel nothing.  We would not feel, viscerally and viciously, the nightmarish world into which father and son have precipitated.  We would not be infused with the chill of post-civilization.

The absence of standard punctuation in The Road is a fruitful, productive absence.  It is a writerly, stylistic choice.

I hope I have persuaded my readers that McCarthy’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation is stylized.  It most certainly is not unnecessary.  One of the lessons that we can derive from the novels of McCarthy is how to apply typography in literary craftsmanship.  Punctuation opens or closes the doors of meaning.  Let me invent my own ambiguously commaless sentence for the purposes of elucidation.  If I write, “I want to eat my parrot William,” this would seem to signify that I want to eat a parrot named William, a parrot that belongs to me.  However, what happens if the comma is explicitly absent?  Three contradictory interpretations are then possible: 1.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her, a parrot named William; 2.) The narrator, apparently, wants to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her and is addressing this remark to someone named William (“I want to eat my parrot, William”); 3.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat in general, and this comment is directed at his or her parrot, the name of which is William (“I want to eat, my parrot William”).  Punctuation, depending on how it is used, can restrict or expand meaning.  Commas articulate, determine meaning.  The absence of a comma, on the other hand, opens up semantic possibilities inherent to language.  Its absence opens the doors of ambiguity.

As I suggested above, McCarthy’s refusal to punctuate in the conventional manner is also intimately connected to the internal struggles of the main character and, perhaps, the psychology of the author.  The narrator eschews commas because he fears death.  I suspect that, similarly, McCarthy’s aversion to punctuation bespeaks a futile desire to escape his mortality–a charmingly fragile and recognizably human desire.

“[E]ver is no time at all” [28].

The ephemerality of the instant.  Hence, the relative commalessness of McCarthy’s statements.  A comma would pause an enunciation, rupture its continuity, the incessant flow of language, the drift of language into the future.  What, after all, is a comma if not the graphic equivalent of a turn in breath, of an exhalation or an inhalation?  Commas do not merely articulate a sentence.  Commas stall, they defer, they postpone, they interrupt without stopping.  A speaking that speaks ceaselessly, without commas, in order to outstrip the nightmare of history.  McCarthy’s language moves forward endlessly, without giving readers a chance to catch their breath.  This is a writing that is unidirectional and decidedly equivocal.

The thrusting momentum of McCarthy’s language fertilizes my suspicion that The Road is also a book about time.  More precisely, a book about time’s three impossibilities: the impossibility of ridding oneself of the past completely, the impossibility of eternalizing the present, and the impossibility of encompassing the future.

The future is essentially unpredictable for the son, and the reader has no idea, at the novel’s close, what will become of him.  Will the son survive?  Will he be bred for cannibal meat, for anthropophagous delicacies?  An infinitude of possibilities…  And here we come to yet another strange intimacy between McCarthy’s singular style of punctuating and not punctuating and one of the leitmotifs of his novel: The eerily open-ended “conclusion” of THE ROAD is no conclusion at all, a conclusion without a period.  And the novel lives on inside of the reader’s head and heart, growing within as if it were a vicious monster fungus.

Joseph Suglia

FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen


FREEDOM (Jonathan Franzen)

by Joseph Suglia

Patty Berglund is one of the good people.  She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Her husband–his name is Walter Berglund–is also one of the good people.  He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, too.  He is greener than Greenpeace.  Then the Berglunds move to Washington, District Columbia, and Walter works for a man named Vin Haven, a big oil-and-gas guy.  A Republican with ties to the Bush-Cheney regime.  One of the conformists.  One of the conservatives.  One of the evil people.

Vin Haven’s a funny kind of person.  He and his wife, Kiki, who is also evil, they, like, love birds and stuff.  Vin got a lot of money by losing money on oil and gas wells in Texas and Oklahoma.  He’s kind of old now, and so he’s decided to blow a lot of dough on the cerulean warbler, a songbird on the Endangered Species List.  There’s a real healthy population of warblers in West Virginia and so to keep the bird off the List and garner some good press, Vin Haven has a dream: to build a cerulean-warbler conservatory in West Virginia and finish building the Pan-American Warbler Park in South America, which is below the U.S.  That dream is Walter’s dream, too.  And it can only come true through properly managed mountaintop removal–blasting mountain peaks so that coal-mining companies can mine coal.  Walter believes in a Green Revolution–a revolution that would be painless to him.

In 2004, Walter starts working on an anti-population crusade.  He struggles to get an intern. program going before the nation’s most liberal college kids all finalize their summer plans and work for the Kerry campaign instead.  Even though he’s got kids, Walter wants to make babies an embarrassment because the planet’s overpopulated, like smoking’s an embarrassment, being obese’s an embarrassment, like driving an Escalade’s an embarrassment, like living in a four-thousand-square-foot house on a two-acre lot’s an embarrassment.  The evil people just want to make more evil people.

The Berglunds’ son Joey moves in with the neighbors–who are really evil people–and eventually becomes a Republican war profiteer.  One of the evil people.

Then there’s Richard Katz, Walter’s old friend from college.  He’s a rocker and a roller, was in a band called The Traumatics, and he knows that rock ‘n’ roll ain’t nothing but the selling of wintergreen Chiclets, man, and ain’t it the truth.  He’s not a real rebel, and he knows it.  He’s a closet Republican, shilling merchandise, just like everyone else in the entertainment industry.  A poseur.  One of the evil people.

But at least Richard knows it, man.  And gets sick of livin’ The Lie.  So he gives up rockin’ and rollin’ and goes back to what he used to do, building decks.  Back to doin’ the only honorable thing he can think of.  He tries to become one of the good people.

* * * * *

Jonathan Franzen is to liberalism what Ayn Rand is to neo-conservatism.  They are both doctrinaire writers who employ fiction as a means to an end.

Whether reactionary or liberal, ideologically charged fiction is sickly writing designed to proselytize.  Its plot and characters are dependent on an easily identifiable political program.  Jonathan Franzen is an ideologizer and a slick pseudo-literary entrepreneur.

Poetic language does not produce characters that are good or evil, politically right or politically wrong.  It creates an imaginary world in which it is impossible to draw such easy distinctions.

* * * * *

When did writing stop having to do with writing?  When novels became nothing more than precursors to screenplays.

It is time, and high time indeed, that American letters stopped having to do with propaganda, cinema, etc., and started having to do with writing again.

Joseph Suglia


OBLIVION by David Foster Wallace / A Negative Review of OBLIVION by David Foster Wallace

A review of Oblivion (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia

When I was in graduate school, I was (mis)taught literature by a man who had no ear for poetic language and who had absolutely no interest in eloquence.  I learned that he held an undergraduate degree in Physics and wondered, as he chattered on loudly and incessantly, why this strange man chose to study and teach literature, a subject that obviously did not appeal to him very much.  I think the same thing of David Foster Wallace, a writer who probably would have been happier as a mathematician (mathematics is a subject that Wallace studied at Amherst College).

A collection of fictions published in 2004, Oblivion reads very much as if a mathematician were trying his hand at literature after having surfeited himself with Thomas Pynchon and John Barth–-not the best models to imitate or simulate, if you ask me.

The first fiction, “Mr. Squishy,” is by far the strongest.  A consulting firm evaluates the responses of a focus group to a Ho-Hoesque chocolate confection.  Wallace comes up with some delightful phraseologies: The product is a “domed cylinder of flourless maltilol-flavored sponge cake covered entirely in 2.4mm of a high-lecithin chocolate frosting,” the center of which is “packed with what amounted to a sucrotic whipped lard” [6].  The external frosting’s “exposure to the air caused it to assume traditional icing’s hard-yet-deliquescent marzipan character” [Ibid.].  Written in a bureaucratized, mechanical language–this language, after all, is the dehumanized, anti-poetic language of corporate marketing firms, the object of Wallace’s satire–the text is a comparatively happy marriage of content and form.

Wallace gets himself into difficulty when he uses this same bureaucratic language in the next fiction, “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” which concerns a homicidal substitute teacher.  I could see how a sterile, impersonal narrative could, by way of counterpoint, humanize the teacher, but the writing just left me cold.  The title of the fiction simply reverses Stephen Dedalus’s statement in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Wallace never composed a sentence as beautiful as Joyce’s.  Indeed, Wallace never composed a beautiful sentence.

“Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” simply duplicates the title (!) of Richard Rorty’s misguided polemic against representationalism (the misconceived idea that language is capable of mirroring the essence of things).  It concerns a son who accompanies his mother to a cosmetic-surgery procedure.  The son, who is also the narrator, says: “[A]nyone observing the reality of life together since the second procedure would agree the reality is the other way around…” [183].  The narrator might or might not be one of the deluded representationalists against whom Rorty polemicized.  For Rorty, “the reality of life” is not something that we are capable of talking about with any degree of insight.  Unfortunately, this is the only point in the text at which the philosophical problem of representation arises.

The eponymous fiction “Oblivion” and the self-reflexive “The Suffering Channel” (which concerns a man whose excreta are considered works of art) are inelegantly and ineloquently written.

After laboring through such verbal dross, I can only conclude that David Foster Wallace was afraid of being read and thus attempted to bore his readers to a teary death.  His noli me legere also applies to himself.  It is impossible to escape the impression that he was afraid of reading and revising any of the festering sentences that he churned out.  Because he likely never read his own sentences, he likely never knew how awkward they sounded.  Infinite Jest was written hastily and unreflectively, without serious editing or revision, it appears.  It is merely because of the boggling bigness of Infinite Jest that the book has surfaced in the consciousness of mainstream America at all (hipsterism is a vicissitude of mainstream America).  We, the Americanized, are fascinated by bigness.  To quote Erich Fromm: “The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers…”

Speech is irreversible; writing is reversible.  If you accept this premise of my argument (and any intelligent person would), must it not be said that responsible writers ought ALWAYS to recite and revise their own sentences?  And does it EVER seem that Wallace did so?

The prose of Oblivion is blearily, drearily, eye-wateringly tedious.  The hipsters will, of course, claim in advance that the grueling, hellish tedium of Wallace’s prose was carefully choreographed, that every infelicity was intentional, and thus obviate any possible criticism of their deity, a deity who, like all deities, has grown more powerful in death.  That is, after all, precisely what they say of the Three Jonathans, the sacred triptych of hipsterdom: Foer, Franzen, and Lethem, the most lethal of them all.

One thing that even the hipsters cannot contest: David Foster Wallace did not write fictionally for his own pleasure.  Unlike Kafka, he certainly did not write books that he ever wanted to read.

A valediction: The early death of David Foster Wallace is terrible and should be mourned.  He was a coruscatingly intelligent man.  My intention here is not to defame the dead. I recommend that the reader spend time with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and leave his other writings alone.  As I suggested above, he probably didn’t want his prose to be read, anyway.

Joseph Suglia



A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN by David Foster Wallace / David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer

An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia

I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts.  His métier was, perhaps, mathematics.  David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).

Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed.  I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997).  Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.

In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can.  He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38).  Perish the thought!

Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television.  Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television.  Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):

1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.

Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).

“Trust what is familiar!” in other words.  “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase.  Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television.  David Foster Wallace was wrong.  No, writers should NOT trust television.  No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see.  The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.

There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste.  That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s.  Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65).  He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time.  They did not, of course.  One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification.  To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television.  But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?

It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist.  Let me enlarge an earlier statement.  Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer.  It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32).  Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it.  Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them.  We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.).  Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  That is your false dilemma.  If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY.  Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.

Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection.  There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism.  There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.

Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).

To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance.  The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990).  Did Wallace never see this film?  How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart?  Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?

To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence.  No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political.  How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness?  How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets?  And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?

Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are.  Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book.  It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.

Joseph Suglia

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA by William Shakespeare

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Perhaps the first of the Shakespearean comedies, and doubtless the least-performed and least-read, is The Two Gentlemen of Verona (circa 1590?).  Even the bardolaters seem embarrassed by the play, and it is not difficult to see why.  There are very few memorable lines.  (Some exceptions: “Truly, sir, I think you’ll hardly win her” [I:i]; “In love, who respects friend?” [V:iv].)  Groan-inducing clichés about love that were commonplace even in Shakespeare’s time: “Fire that’s closest kept burns most of all” [I:ii]; “Love is blind” [II:i].  Inhumanly sudden changes of heart (I will return to this problem below).  A parade of puns, all of them halting and limp.  Some interesting canine imagery (man is a dog)–the play has more to do with Dog than with God.  To summon forth Harold Bloom, little of the “hearing-oneself-speak” that gives depth to Shakespeare’s more human inventions.  When the characters do listen to themselves speak, it is strange that they don’t burst into laughter.  (One remarkable exception: Act Two, Scene Six.)

Valentine and Proteus are the Veronese aristocrats of the title.  Valentine is the loverboy.  Proteus is the rake.  Valentine is the constant one.  Proteus, as his name implies, is inconstant (“Proteus,” of course, refers to the god of mutability).

Here is the logic of desire in The Two Gentlemen of Verona:

Valentine desires Sylvia, a Milanese lady.  Sylvia desires Valentine.  Julia, a Veronese lady, desires Proteus because Proteus “despises” Julia [IV:iv].  Proteus no longer desires Julia because Valentine does not desire Julia.  Proteus desires Sylvia because Valentine desires Sylvia.

Let me pause over this final proposition.  Proteus desires Sylvia because Valentine desires Sylvia.  Proteus states this clearly:

Is it my mind, or Valentinus’ praise,
Her true perfection, or my false transgression,
That makes me reasonless to reason thus?
She is fair; and so is Julia that I love–
That I did love, for now my love is thaw’d;
Which like a waxen image ‘gainst a fire
Bears no impression of the thing it was [II:iv].

Julia, his first love in the play, might be a melting wax figure, but so, too, will Sylvia be.  Proteus will exchange Sylvia for Julia in the final act of the play and assert that both are equally beautiful, that Sylvia is not more beautiful than Julia.  One woman is interchangeable with any other, one woman is exchangeable for any other (according to Proteus).  Proteus declares Julia dead not once, but twice–the second time, Julia listens to the man she loves declaring her dead–because of the protean character of (his) desire, the inconstancy of (his) desire.  The image that love produces is a melting wax figure or an ice-image dissolving into water [III:ii].  If one woman is as good as any another, for Proteus, it is very likely “Valentinus’ praise” that incites Proteus’ desire for Sylvia, not any of Sylvia’s intrinsic qualities.

If anything, the play is suggesting that heterosexuality is a modification of homosexuality, not the other way around.

And what if this were the case?  What if homosexuality were not a deviation from the norm of heterosexuality?  What if heterosexuality were a deviation from the norm of homosexuality?  What if men desired women not because of women’s intrinsic beauty or favour (Shakespearean for “charm”)?  What if men desired women because women are desired by other men?  What if desire for the beloved were mediated by the desires of others for the beloved?

If this were the case, then heteroerotic desire would be fundamentally homosocial.

The play concerns the war between Eros (other-sexual desire) and Philia (same-sex friendship), and it is male Philia that wins out in the end.

As the passage cited above suggests, Proteus desires simulations of women more than he desires women in the flesh.  In our cybernetic culture, Proteus would be a pornography addict.  Consider the fact that Proteus is more amorous of Sylvia’s portrait than he is of Sylvia-in-the-Flesh.  Consider the fact the Proteus asks for an image of Sylvia–an image to which he can masturbate.  Much like Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, Sylvia can never be apprehended in her divine nudity.  The goddess is impalpable and divinely invisible–what Proteus-Actaeon sees is only the human shape that she assumes.  (Shakespeare’s text supports this equation–at one stage, Sylvia is described as the “Queen of the Night,” which is one of Diana’s appellations.)

Not merely is Proteus a rake.  We learn early on that he is a blockhead, as well.  In his discourse with Valentine’s servant Speed:

“The sheep for fodder follow the shepherd; the shepherd for food follows not the sheep” [I:i].

Of course, this is a specious, merely colorable argument.  The sheep do not follow the shepherd for food.  They can eat it from the ground.  The shepherd follows the sheep.  The shepherd tends the sheep because he wants to shear the sheep, eat the sheep, sell the sheep’s meat, sell the sheep’s wool, or befriend the sheep.


The most remarkable aspect of the play is what I call the “Shakespearean Circuit” or the “Loop of Desire.”  It functions in this manner: 1.) A giver gives a gift to a recipient.  2.) The recipient returns the gift to the giver.  3.) The gift is now directed at the giver, not the recipient.

Here is the first instance of the Shakespearean Circuit in The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Valentine (very reluctantly) writes a love letter on behalf of Sylvia.  The letter, Sylvia tells Valentine, is intended for one of her suitors.  Valentine presents the letter to Sylvia.  Sylvia returns the letter to Valentine.  The letter that Valentine wrote on Sylvia’s behalf is now addressed to Valentine.

This is how the Circuit works in this context: 1.) A lover writes a letter on behalf of his beloved–a letter that is addressed to the lover’s rival.  2.) The beloved returns the letter to the lover.  3.) The letter is, then, addressed to the lover, not to the lover’s rival.

Here is another example of the “Shakespearean Circuit”: Julia gives Proteus a ring.  Proteus asks Julia, when she is disguised as a man, to give the ring to Sylvia, which she never does.  Julia returns the ring to Proteus.  End of circuit.

The Loop of Desire is not endemic to this particular play–one can find the Shakespearean Circuit in much of the dramatist’s work (e.g. The Merry Wives of Windsor).  One character gives his desire to another character–and this expression of desire ends up being directed to the giver, not the intended recipient.


I mentioned in the introductory paragraph that the characters of The Two Gentlemen of Verona have “inhumanly sudden changes of heart.”  Some instances of this:

A band of outlaws accosts Valentine and his page in a forest.  Thirty-two lines later–may the reader count them–the outlaws coronate Valentine, making him their king!

Proteus attempts to ravish Sylvia.  Valentine frustrates the ravishment before it is accomplished.  Twenty-three lines later–may the reader count them–Valentine forgives the would-be rapist and then just as quickly offers him his fiancée!

Even Shakespeare’s idolaters cannot ignore the slipshod construction of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  Unless the play is intended as a spoof (and not merely a “comedy” in the Shakespearean sense), it is indefensible.  Then again, one of the play’s leitmotifs is metamorphosis, which might also explain why the valiant Sir Eglamour rescues the fair damsel Sylvia and then runs away comically as the bandits come near.

Shakespeare is both the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the English literary canon.  If one takes The Two Gentlemen of Verona in isolation, one can only conclude that it was written by an unworthy versifier and not by a major poet whose talent exceeds that of Andrew Marvell.  Its virtues are meager in comparison with the theatre of the great Scandinavian, Ibsen, and of the great Russian, Chekhov.  It is time to explode the myth that Shakespeare was always a great writer, when, in plays such as this, he is an unimaginative, fatuous hack.  A poet, yes, but a poet with the soul of an entertainer.

Joseph Suglia


ONLY REVOLUTIONS by Mark Z. Danielewski / An Analysis of ONLY REVOLUTIONS by Mark Z. Danielewski

An Analysis of Only Revolutions (Mark Z. Danielewski) by Joseph Suglia

The mystery of all mysteries surrounds Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions (2006): Someone actually thought that this endless circuit of gibberish qualified for the National Book Award.  And it is an endless circuit, literally.  Columns of words loop and spiral, making the text all but unintelligible.  We have two narratives–though the book does eschew traditional narrative, as if there were something revolutionary about doing so in 2006–that of Sam and that of Hailey, both of whom are perpetually sixteen.  If you look at the bottom of the page while reading Sam’s narrative, there you will find Hailey’s upside down.  The size of Sam’s text dwindles as it progresses (from 22 November 1863 to 22 November 1963), gradually dwarfed by Hailey’s.  Turn the book around 180 degrees and start at the back, and you can read all about Hailey, from 22 November 1963 (the pivot of the book, the day of Kennedy’s assassination) to 22 November 2063.  History is circular, don’t you know!  The book’s one motif is the stupidity of circularity.

Despite Danielewski’s transparent desire to be innovative, there is nothing new here.  It really is stunning how stale the book is rendered.  The huge “S” with which Sam’s narrative begins was stolen wholesale from Ulysses, the characters Sam and Hailey are openly imitative of Shem and Shaun (the famous brothers of Finnegans Wake), the typographical tics recall Derrida’s Glas and La dissémination, and the wordage sounds a bit like the driveling gobbledygook of an ill-read high-school stoner who just finished leafing his way inattentively through both Finnegans Wake and Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon.  Vaguely resemblant of a designer Joyce-Made-EZ, Only Revolutions is enslaved to its precursors.  Whereas Joyce creates worlds with words, however, Danielewski seems fearful of language and its literary capabilities.  There is a kind of aggression toward language here, a certain virulent logophobia.  It is a book not to be read–though I have read every silly, jingling phrase–but to be looked at.

How bad is the writing?  At his very best, Danielewski recalls Shakespeare at his very worst.  At his worst, he is singsongy, spewing forth nonsensical nursery rhymes that emerge from the page like sulphurous flames issuing from some mephitic kindergarten in Hell, as if the writer regarded Finnegans Wake as a collection of limp, wince-inducing doggerel, as if the book were his ill-conceived idea of a “found poem”–the “found” part being the sort of dribbling babble found at the bottom of e-mails in order to fool SPAM filters–or his deeply unfortunate, private misinterpretation of Brion Gysin’s “cut-up” method or of surrealist automatism.  To say that Danielewski’s versification has little concern for elegance or expansiveness would be to say too little.  When, for instance, he writes phrases and sentences such as “I outrace furry. Populate worry” [H 24]; “All of it too with puddles of goo, sog and drool” [H 43]; “Concerning her poverty, I resort to generosity” [S 9]; “I’m the heist. The impersonal price” [H 13]; “Slump. Plop. Awshucking dump” [S 83]; “Sam takes the lumps. And The Pumps” [H 55]; “Only capless Sam ups for horny, ogling my feet” [H 53]; “Sam spurts his mess. All over my chest” [H 59], you feel that it is really the result of indifference or laziness, as if jangle and flash were more important to the man than the explosive possibilities inherent to literary language.

By this, I do not mean to suggest that Danielewski’s language is too difficult–far from it.  His banter is not so much “difficult” as it is sterile and vacant of meaning.

It is impossible to do justice to this book without discussing another gimmick in its typographical design.  This is because the book IS its typographical design.  Danielewski the Graphic Designer highlights every “O” in the book with a golden hue, as if the letter were globally hyperlinked.  This not an insignificant matter.  The internet impresses itself upon every page of Only Revolutions.  And in the final analysis, the flashy fonts and sprawling typographies are nothing more than glitzy Web design, counter-linguistic ruses distracting readers from the impoverishment of the book’s verbal properties.  But as some of us know, the pyrotechnics of typography and font are no substitute for writing with vividness and grace.

Joseph Suglia

Slap Something Together: Sixteen Bad Sentences from Chuck Palahniuk’s MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD / Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer

Slap Something Together: Sixteen Abysmal Quotations from Chuck Palahniuk’s MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD

by Joseph Suglia


Every work of fiction is, by definition, something that is “made up.”  The word fiction is derived from the Latin fictio, which means “to fashion,” “to craft.”  If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, its lesson is that nothing that has been read can be unread.  The title of the book contains a redundancy and a statement of the obvious.  Or a statement that would be obvious to even a slightly educated person.  The book would have been better titled Slap Something Together: Stories No Thinking Person Should Ever Read.

2.) “My old man, he makes everything into a Big Joke” [1].

Elementary-school children learn that double subjects are bad grammar. chuckpalahniuk, who is fifty-three years old as I write these words, is still unaware of this fact. There is nothing wrong with appositives, but this is not an appositive: “My old man, he” is a double subject. The use of the double subject is not merely ungrammatical; it is irritating and unnecessary. And why capitalize “big joke,” if it is preceded by an indefinite article?

3.) “Me, I didn’t get it” [2].

No literate person begins a sentence with a double subject. Nor does he or she begin sentences with objective pronouns.

4.) “Me, my teachers still haven’t covered long division and all the multiple-cation tables so it’s not my old man’s fault I don’t know what’s ‘c**’” [3].

One might claim that the narrator is a child and would not know the proper spelling of multiplication, but the narrator is identified as a “grown-up son” on the fourth page.

5.) “This Stage Four cancer guy forces himself to laugh nonstop at Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy and those Marx brothers, and he gets healed by the end-orphans [sic] and oxy-generated [sic] blood” [4].

Even though the misspellings are purposeful, only someone with brain damage would write in such a manner.  There are purposeful misspellings in the writing of Anita Loos, but none is witless. chuckpalahniuk is capable of nothing but witlessisms.

6.) “The bartender smiles so nice and says, ‘What? You don’t like Michelob no more?’” [5].

That should read “so nicely,” of course; the Chuckies and the Chuckettes have the tendency to confuse adverbs and adjectives.  “So nice” is chuckpalahniuk’s ham-fisted way of trying to make his narrator (and himself) appear charming.  Unhappily, chuckpalahniuk is not merely charmless; he is uncharmable.  This sentence, incidentally, occurs toward the end of a rape joke.  I would defend to the death the right of writers to describe whatever they please, but anyone who finds rape amusing is either a sociopath or a psychopath.  The unenviable readers of Beautiful You already know that chuckpalahniuk finds rape a fit subject for humor.  chuckpalahniuk’s approach to the sexual violation of women is both slapdash and slaphappy.  It is a distasteful quality in the writer and not a little insane.

7.) “The old man’s gasping his big toothless mouth like he can’t get enough air, crying big tears down the wrinkles of both cheeks, just soaking his pillow” [6].

While it is the case that to gasp may be a transitive verb, the mouth is what is doing the gasping.  People might gasp, but they do not “gasp their mouths.”  “Like” is used conjunctionally, and the sentence is a non-parallel construction.  A less analphabetic way of writing the sentence would be: “The old man is gasping through his big toothless mouth, as if he couldn’t get enough air, crying big tears that stream down the wrinkles of both cheeks and soak his pillow.”

8.) “And he’s STILL dying, the old man’s leaving me not knowing the answer to anything. He’s abandoning me while I’m still so f***ing stupid” [7].

Ignorance is not stupidity.  Ignorance is the absence of knowledge, whereas stupidity is the inability to process ideas.  chuckpalahniuk thinks that stupidity and ignorance are interchangeable and that “stupidity” comes and goes.  In the case of chuckpalahniuk, however, stupidity is a chronic condition.

9.) “The old goobers stop chewing on their tobacco” [8].

Educated people know that to chew means “to bite on” and that “to chew on” is therefore an analphabetism.  The sentence should read: “The old goobers [if one must use that idiotic pseudo-word] stop chewing their tobacco.”

10.) “And finally one old barbershop codger, he says in barely a tobacco whisper, so soft you can hardly hear him, he asks, ‘Who’s there?’” [9].

While it is true that smoking can degrade the vocal system, “tobacco whisper” is an asinine coinage.  Perhaps one of chuckpalahniuk’s disciples could write a teleplay entitled Tobacco Whisperer, modeled on the Jennifer Love Hewitt vehicle Ghost Whisperer.  Notice that two subjects are not enough for the pseudo-author chuckpalahniuk.  He adds a third.

11.) “In grocery stores or department stores, Monkey offered cubes of sausage skewered with toothpicks” [18].

To whom, precisely, did Monkey offer cubes of sausages skewered with toothpicks?  Does the narrator not know in which realms Monkey offered cubes of sausages skewered with toothpicks?  The phrase should read, “grocery stores AND department stores,” not “grocery stores OR department stores,” unless the narrator is unaware of the kind of spaces in which Monkey offered cubes of sausages skewered with toothpicks.

12.) “Monkey offered dollops of apple pie served in tiny paper cups, or paper napkins cradling sample bites of tofu” [Ibid.].

This is a railway accident of a sentence.  A dollop is a small amount of soft food, and yet the crust of apple pie, as every infant knows, is hard.  Commas should not be used to separate dependent clauses, and “sample bites” is tautological.

13.) “Monkey hadn’t noticed at first, perhaps her nose had been blunted by selling perfume and cigarettes, but the cheese smelled disgusting” [20].

If Monkey’s actual nose had been blunted, this could mean that Monkey had an aquiline nose that had been flattened in the act of selling perfume and cigarettes.

14.) “Yet all night Monkey lay awake in bed, listening to Rabbit doing it with Mink in the next motel room, and fretting that, despite her advanced degree in Communications, she’d be stuck below a glass ceiling, getting sniffed by Moose for the rest of her career” [21].

Though I suppose it is possible that rabbit couple with mink, it seems unlikely, given that rabbit are lagomorphs and mink belong to the weasel family.  Do I really need to point out that “glass ceiling” is a mind-deflating cliché?

15.) “In Miss Chen’s English class, we learned, ‘To be or not to be…’ but there’s a big gray area in between. Maybe in Shakespeare times people only had two options” [29].

chuckpalahniuk appears to have stumbled into someone else’s interesting idea that being is not an absolute concept.  Indeed, transitional forms between being and nonbeing are thinkable.  Perhaps holograms and other forms of virtualization exist between being and nonbeing.  After this ill-worded yet provocative suggestion, chuckpalahniuk, predictably, writes about something entirely different: “Griffin Wilson, he knew that the SATs were just the gateway to a big lifetime of b*******.”  chuckpalahniuk is like a stupefied bumpkin who gapes at an idea that is too profound for him and then quickly diverts his attention to the Chick-fil-A across the street.  “Shakespeare” is a dolt’s only reference point to “the past,” as “Hitler” is a dolt’s only reference point to “evil.”  chuckpalahniuk’s condescension is astounding.  The difference between chuckpalahniuk and Shakespeare is analogous to the difference between a puddle of fermented wolverine urine and the Atlantic Ocean.

16.) “The problem with being Talented And Gifted is sometimes you get too smart” [29].

To unmuddle some of the confusions of this utterance: “Talented” and “gifted” should not be separated, and there is absolutely no reason to capitalize “and.”  In the squalid wastelands of Mr. Palahniuk’s Planet, intelligence is regarded as a vice and stupidity is regarded as a virtue.  This explains the writer’s appeal to high-school stoners of all ages.

17.) Every book by chuckpalahniuk is a frognado of idiocy.

Joseph Suglia

Analogy Blindness: I invented a linguistic term. Dr. Joseph Suglia


Over the years, I have invented a number of words and phrases.  Genocide pornography is one that I am especially proud of (cf. my essays on Quentin Tarantino); anthropophagophobia is another word that I coined, which means “the fear of cannibalism” (cf. my interpretation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It).  I would like to introduce to the world (also known as Google) a new linguistic term:

analogy blindness (noun phrase): the inability to perceive what an analogy represents.  To be lost in the figure of an analogy itself, while losing sight of the concept that the analogy describes.


The Analogist: Polygamy is like going to a buffet instead of a single-serve restaurant.  Both are inadvisable.

The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: People love buffets!


The Analogist: Being taught how to write by Chuck Palahniuk is like being taught how to play football by a one-legged man.

The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: A one-legged man who knows how to coach football?  That’s great!


The Analogist: You should not have reprimanded her in such a rude manner for taking time off from work.  You treated her as if she were guilty of some terrible offense, such as plagiarism.

The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: But plagiarism is bad!


Derived from Hui-neng: When the wise person points at the Moon, the imbecile sees the finger.

Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (Shakespeare)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Shakespeare’s shortest and dumbest play, The Comedy of Errors (circa 1594) concerns identical-twin brothers who are separated in a shipwreck and their servants who, incredibly, are also identical twins.  The shortest and the dumbest play, yes, and also the most infantile thing the Swan of Avon ever composed.  Nauseatingly and horrifically infantile in three senses of the word “infantile”: 1.) It belongs to Shakespeare’s infancy as a dramatist.  2.) It contains scatological humor and slapstick violence.  Only stupid people, infant infants and adult infants, find scatological humor and slapstick violence diverting.  The comedy is designed for those who find something intrinsically funny about a harlequin being beaten by an unforgiving master.  3.) The play lacks eloquence in the same way that infants lack eloquence.

It is also Shakespeare’s most Aristotelian play, slavishly obeying, as it does, Aristotle’s unities of time and place.  The entire comedy takes place uninterruptedly in the span of one day and unfolds at a frenetic velocity.  Antipholus of Syracuse comes to Ephesus to find his brother and his mother.  There, he is confused with Antipholus of Ephesus.  Hilarity ensues.

The comedy has Plautine origins and perhaps owes some of its buffoonery to the Commedia dell’arte.  The plot is largely derived from Plautus’s Amphitruo, where a master and his servant are locked out of the house while the wife entertains Jupiter and Mercury, disguised as her husband and his servant, respectively, and the Menaechmi, with its two sets of twins.

A second literary source is likely St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.  Ephesus was, at the time that St. Paul composed his epistle (circa 100 CE), in the thrall of Artemis (Diana, Goddess of the Hunt).  Shakespeare’s audiences would not have been unaware of St. Paul’s condemnation of the witcheries of Ephesus.  One can hear resonances of St. Paul’s apotropaisms in Antipholus of Syracuse’s words:

They say this town is full of cozenage; / As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye, / Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, / Soul-killing witches that deform the body, / Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks, / And many such-like liberties of sin [I:ii].

Shakespeare’s revision lent itself easily to stupid Broadway musicals and even sillier off-Broadway burlesques.  The Digital Theatre recently performed a slaphappy version of the play for digital children, and that is the ideal public for this awful play.  Add meows and barks and moos and other animal sounds and kitschy songs, and you have a farce.

* * * * *

A question taxes first-time readers of the erroneous comedy: Why are both of the merchant’s sons given the same name, Antipholus?  And why are their servants, who are also twins, given the same name, Dromio?

Aegeon, father to the Antipholuses, describes the event of his wife’s pregnancy and the double birth of his sons:

There had she not been long but she became / A joyful mother of two goodly sons; / And, which is strange, the one so like the other / As could not be distinguish’d but by names [I:i].

If the twins could only be distinguished by their names, why, then, are they both named Antipholus?  One explanation is that they were given separate names, but were confused in the storm.  Both parents took each twin for Antipholus and Dromio, respectively (what the “other” names are, we will never know).

However, this hypothesis falls to pieces when we consider Aemilia’s story in the one-scene fifth act.  She claims that “rude fishermen” from Corinth took “Dromio” and her son from her.  They were then brought to Ephesus by Duke Menaphon, uncle to Duke Solinus.  “Antipholus of Ephesus” and “Dromio of Ephesus” were infants at the time of their separation from their mother.  How, then, does Antipholus know that his name is “Antipholus”?  And how does Dromio know that this name is “Dromio”?

There is an even more vexing improbability: Are we credulous enough to believe that both sets of twins would appear in the same town on the same day wearing exactly the same hairstyles and outfits?

Yet another taxing improbability: Antipholus of Syracuse has been searching the world for his brother and his mother.  Surely Aegeon told Antipholus of Syracuse that his son is a twin.  If the Ephesians greet Antipholus of Syracuse “as if [he] were their well-acquainted friend” [IV:iii], shouldn’t he have been able to figure out that his twin brother is in Ephesus?

The plot is so confusing that it might be helpful to list the confusions:

1.)    In the marketplace, Antipholus of Syracuse mistakes Dromio of Ephesus for his own servant.  The master asks the servant what the latter has done with his money.  The Ephesian Dromio urges Antipholus of Syracuse to come home for dinner and is viciously beaten.

2.)   Adriana, wife to Antipholus of Ephesus, accuses Antipholus of Syracuse of having “strumpeted” her.  The Syracusan Antipholus is uncomprehending, having only been in Ephesus for two hours, and does not know who she is.

3.)   Luciana, sister to Adriana, commands the Syracusan Dromio to bid the servants to set the table for dinner.  Dromio of Syracuse, of course, has no idea what she means.

4.)   Dromio of Syracuse locks out Antipholus of Ephesus (and his servant) from his own home.

5.)   Luce (also known as “Nell”), wife to Dromio of Ephesus, mistakes Dromio of Syracuse for her husband.

6.)   Luciana is courted by Antipholus of Syracuse.  Luciana believes, mistakenly, that Adriana’s husband is flirting with her.

7.)   Angelo, Ephesian merchant, gives a necklace to Antipholus of Syracuse, who accepts it with bemusement.  Later, Angelo will demand payment for the necklace from Antipholus of Ephesus.  Angelo, as it turns out, is in debt and in danger of being imprisoned for his debtorship.  (Though “debtorship” does not appear in Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, it was used by George Meredith.)

8.)  Aegeon mistakes his Ephesian son for the other, etc.

Ephesus is a town in which everyone is strange to Antipholus of Syracuse.  Ephesus is a town in which Antipholus of Syracuse is a stranger to himself.  Doubled, he does not know himself.  The Comedy of Errors is a prototype to The Tempest: Both plays are about self-alienation and self-loss.  Ephesus seems a magical land where no man is his own, where no woman is her own.  The play hints at the impossibility of self-ownership and self-mastery:

He that commends me to mine own content / Commends me to the thing I cannot get. / I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop, / Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, / Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself. / So I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself [I:ii].

One drop of water in the ocean in which he nearly drowned, Antipholus of Syracuse is neither unique nor the master of himself.  This is why Adriana, the wife of his Ephesian double, asks him: “How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it, / That thou art then estranged from thyself?” [II:ii].

The Comedy of Errors suggests that to be oneself is to be another person, that selfhood is not identity.

Is this why neither Antipholus of Ephesus nor Antipholus of Syracuse seem very happy to meet each other the end of play?

Dr. Joseph Suglia

SO LONG, PLANET EARTH!: An analysis of ODE TO THE WEST WIND (Percy Bysshe Shelley) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

SO LONG, PLANET EARTH!: An analysis of “Ode to the West Wind” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Bad news, humans!  The Andromeda Galaxy is barreling toward the Milky Way, the sun of our solar system will explode, will extinguish itself, as all stars do, and, long before either of these things happen, most of the Planet Earth will become uninhabitably hot.  All of the planets within our galaxy, with the exception of Earth, are unlivable, which means that the human species, if it is to survive at all, will have to trickle away the rest of its existence in spacecraft.  Otherwise, we are hurtling toward our extinction and oblivion as if we were a suicide of lemmings.

Percy Bysshe Shelley saw all of this coming and wrote a poem about the destruction of our world, in the autumn of 1819, when the poet was twenty-seven, entitled “Ode to the West Wind.”  It recalls an earlier poem by Albrecht von Haller entitled “Incomplete Poem on Eternity” (1736), which was quoted by Immanuel Kant in his youthful essay “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and of the Sublime” (1764).  (It is not entirely certain whether Shelley read Kant, much less Haller.  See Hugh Roberts’s article “Shelley among the Post-Kantians.”)  Both poems—that of Shelley and that of Haller—are chillingly apocalyptic and yet also celebratory of the apocalypse, the coming of what Haller described as “the second nothingness” that will “bury” us all.

The ode is divided into five groups.  Each group contains five stanzas.  The first four stanzas in each group are three lines long; the last stanza of each group is a rhyming couplet.  The entire poem is written in iambic pentameter: Each line has ten syllables; the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed.  It begins thus:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!

The West Wind is like an invisible exorcist that expels leaves in the way that an exorcist expels ghosts.  Thus far, the poem seems to be nothing more than the description of a natural phenomenon that uses a supernatural simile: A natural phenomenon (the West Wind) is likened to a supernatural force (the enchanter) that drives away another supernatural force (ghosts).  Until we read of the “pestilence-stricken multitudes” who are escorted to their mass-death.  “Multitudes” evokes human beings, not leaves—sick human beings, poor human beings.

When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, England was horribly impoverished.  It was a time of famine, grave poverty, and deep unemployment.  Thanks to the Corn Laws of 1815, the import of corn was blocked and the multitudes were starving.

At this point, one of the meanings generated by the poem is clear: This is an ode that welcomes the death of humanity (as it was in the early nineteenth century) and the birth of a new humanity.  The poem suggests that the Apocalypse might not be such a bad idea, after all.  It is not a misanthropic poem, however, since Shelley is not opposed to humanity as such; indeed, he (the paper Shelley) affirms the advent of a better humanity.  I hesitate to use the word nihilistic, since the poem is not absent of value.  Value-building is all that the poem does.  There is a value presented in the poem, and it is the value of preservative destruction: The westerly wind is named a “Wild Spirit,” at the close of the first section, and both a “destroyer” and a “preserver.”  It is the unseen presence that destroys the immiserated multitudes and the regal chariot that bears the seeds of a new humanity to their wintry sleep, to be awakened by the Spring Wind.  The West Wind, then, has two functions: to destroy lost contemporary humanity and to plant the seeds for a stronger future humanity.

At the close of the first stanza, as at the close of the second and the third, the narrator sounds a clarion call, a plangent summons to the West Wind (which is apostrophized by the familiar “Thou”): “oh, hear!”

Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!

The focus of the poem shifts from the ground to the sky.  To be precise: The view of the poem moves from the leaves that are being dispersed, as rioters in a mob, to the clouds that are being dispelled by the aerial force of the West Wind.  No longer does the poem look down upon the poverty-stricken multitudes; now, the poem looks up at the Castlereaghs and the Eldons.  No love is shown for the upper classes, which are likened to a bacchante’s tresses.

It is important to place the poem in the age in which it was written.  Shelley had already condemned the government of Lord Liverpool for butchering the British people at Peterloo, Manchester (16 August 1819), in a rage-incented and rage-incenting poem entitled “The Masque of Anarchy.”  Shelley was no nihilistic, ennui-drowsy elitist wishing for the death of the poor and uneducated masses.  The paper Shelley, at least, wishes for the West Wind to sweep away everyone and everything that currently exists, both low and high.

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!

The tyrannies of the world—the violently repressive British government among them—are overthrown by the annihilating gust.  The great wind dreamed, and this is what it dreamed: The wind envisioned the “old palaces and towers” reflected in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.  And these “old palaces and towers” were “all overgrown with azure moss and flowers.”  Swathes of invasive vegetation colonize the city, which is transmuting into a jungle—an ever-growing, ever-flourishing, ever-blossoming jungle.

This is the last time that the prophet will summon the West Wind. Now, it is the prophet himself who will become the focus of the poem.  I use the masculine pronoun because it is clear that the narrator is a he in the fourth section:

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

The prophet, far from exempting himself from the wind’s sweepings, calls to the wind to carry him along as if he were a leaf, a cloud, or a wave.  At first, it seems as if the prophet were calling for his own self-negation, but then notice how he quickly calls himself a “comrade” of the wind in Stanza Three and then identifies himself with the wind in the second line of the couplet: “[o]ne too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.”  One cannot escape the impression that the prophet sees himself as something more than a leaf, a cloud, or a wave.  If anything, this is self-deification, the raising of the Self to the godhood.  This is anthropotheism, similar to the anthropotheism that Feuerbach saw in Christianity: Christians attribute the best parts of themselves to God.

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Translation: Let my leaves emerge from the nothingness that the wind will leave in its wake.  Let me be revivified after the wind’s many destructions and annihilations.  Let my poems revitalize the dead Earth.  Like any good Romantic figure, Shelley’s prophet desires to unify himself with nature, but this does not mean that he would be swallowed up by nature–it means, rather, that he would swallow nature, engulf nature, interiorize nature, transform nature into the Self: “Be thou me.”  This is, again, not self-obliteration; it is anthropotheism, the aggressive self-assertion of the human will.  The poet’s song will outlast the wind.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript.  German Romanticism (of the Jena period) is nostalgic for the reunification of subject and object, self and world.  English Romanticism seems to want the same thing, except, in the English Romantic imagination, the Self dominates Nature.  It wants Nature to capitulate to the Self.

Compare Shelley with Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

Are not the mountains, waves, and skies, a part
Of me and of my soul, as I of them?

Dr. Joseph Suglia


An analysis of MEASURE FOR MEASURE (Shakespeare)

An Analysis of MEASURE FOR MEASURE (Shakespeare)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

No play in the Shakespearean canon is as politically radical as Measure for Measure, suggesting, as it does, that all political authority is corrupt at its core.  It is the antithesis of The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s most reactionary play.

The title, Measure for Measure, is richly ambiguous.  It refers directly to the Hebraic and Christian Bibles–in particular, to the Sermon on the Mount: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” [Matthew 7:2].  This is Jesus’ endorsement of divine justice.  While Jesus repudiates the endless cycle of human eye-for-an-eye violence, he has no problem endorsing a divine lex talionis.

In Shakespeare’s play, the character Angelo, who is no angel, makes of himself a figure of divine justice.  He is invested with secular authority, as well.  Before Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, withdraws from the city, he deputizes Angelo, delegating to him all of the powers of the state:

 Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue, and heart [I:i].

Well, mortality does, at least.  But no mercy lives in Angelo’s reptilian heart.

The Duke only pretends to withdraw from Vienna and to migrate to Poland (others say to Russia or Rome); all the while, he remains in the city, disguised as a friar.

In the Duke’s (apparent) absence, Angelo sentences to death a young man named Claudio for lechery.  Claudio is betrothed to his beloved Juliet, but their marriage has not yet been consecrated:

[S]he is fast my wife, / Save that we do the denunciation lack / Of outward order [I:ii].

“Outward order” is indeed the problem of the play.  She has been impregnated out of wedlock.  For this, the sin of fornication, Claudio is to be beheaded.

Angelo is a theocrat who does not distinguish between secular and religious authority.  He recognizes no nuance, no degree between offenses.  Every crime is equal to him.  In accordance with his absolutist morality, all of the bordellos in Vienna are ordered to be plucked down [I:ii].  When the demi-god Authority [I:ii] hammers down on the city of Vienna, it knows no distinction between murder and fornication.  Prostitution is a secular and a spiritual offense in Angelo’s eyes.  Unlicensed sex is the same as murder and deserves the same penalty as murder:

To pardon him that hath from nature stolen / A man already made, as to remit / Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven’s image / In stamps that are forbid.  ’Tis all as easy / Falsely to take away a life true made, / As to put mettle in restrained means / To make a false one [II:iv].

Angelo’s moralism is anti-sexual, and what is anti-sexual is anti-life.  It is also, of course, an unreachable ideal.  As Lucio puts it, it is impossible to extirpate human sexuality.  You might as well condemn the sparrows for lechery.  Pompey’s question (to Escalus) is a propos: “Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?” [II:i].  Indeed, Angelo’s New Vienna is much like Giuliani’s Times Square in the 1990s.  Like Giuliani, Angelo would desexualize the city, eunuchizing its populace.

A more measured justice, against the moralistic extremism of Angelo, is represented by Vincentio.  And this is the second connotation of the title: As opposed to the absolutism of measure-for-measure religious violence, a more moderate, more measured secular justice is desirable.

There is a third connotation in the play’s title that I would like to illuminate.  The entire play is a web of substitutions.  Measure for Measure means, in this context, taking one thing for another.  Angelo replaces Vincentio—when the surrogate takes the place of the original, disaster results.  Ragozine’s head replaces Claudio’s head.  The violation of Isabella’s virginity would substitute for Claudio’s death.  There are linguistic transpositions, as well:  Pompey says, “benefactor” instead of “malefactor,” “varlets” instead of “honourable men,” “Hannibal” instead of “cannibal,” etc. [II:i].

* * * * *

Claudio asks his sister Isabella (by way of Lucio, friend to Claudio) to prostrate herself before the deputy and plead for his life.  He knows the erotic power that she radiates:

For in her youth / There is a prone and speechless dialect / Such as move men [I:ii]

In the city of *************************, brother prostitutes sister.  Claudio would be his sister’s procurer.  One should recall that “prone” connotes “lying down.”  It is unclear what the denotative meaning is supposed to be.  “Move” suggests the contagion of sexual desire.  Her words would not be a logical appeal, an appeal by reason to reason, but an erotic appeal, an appeal by reason to the libido.

Isabella isn’t a very strong advocate for her brother’s life.  “I’ll see what I can do” [I:iv], she tells Lucio.  And she gives up far too easily when her petition is rejected.  During the first interview with Angelo, she says, weakly, “O just but severe law!  I had a brother, then: heaven keep your honour” [II:ii].  After her appeal seems to be rejected during the second interview, she says, unimpressively, “Even so.  Heaven keep your honour” [II:iv].

Isabella’s argument for her brother’s life is a biblical one: Hate the sin, but not the sinner.  Angelo sees himself as a vehicle for divine law.  It is the law, not he, who is responsible for condemning her brother to death.  Both Isabella and Angelo depersonalize in their arguments for and against the death penalty as punishment for “illegitimate” sexual intercourse.  Here is what Isabella says at the beginning of her argument:

There is a vice that most I do abhor, / And most desire should meet the blow of justice; / For which I would not plead, but that I must; / For which I must not plead, but that I am / At war ’twixt will and will not [I:ii].

Who would consider this a strong appeal for someone’s life?  If your brother were sentenced to death, I would hope that you would plead more forcefully.  She speaks of her brother’s death with such flippancy that one must question whether or not she even cares if he will die:

Dar’st thou die? / The sense of death is most in apprehension; / And the poor beetle that we tread upon / In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great / As when a giant dies [III:i].

The Duke, disguised as Friar Lodowick, says nearly the same thing to Claudio: Be absolute for death, since it is better to die than to live fearing death.  The argument is specious.

Like all moralists, Angelo is a sanctimonious hypocrite.  When Isabella pleads with the corrupt deputy for mercy, he makes a bargain: Only if Isabella surrenders her body to Angelo’s sexual desires will her brother be released from the death sentence.  As commentators have suggested before me, Isabella is more concerned with her own vanity, her narcissistic self-regard, than with her brother’s mortality:

Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life / From thine own sister’s shame? [III:i].

Harold Bloom might have been correct when he asserted that Isabella is unable to distinguish sexuality from incest.  Notice that Isabella not only accuses her brother of incest for attempting to recruit his sister as an advocate, but claims that he cohabitated with her cousin [I:iv].

Though her basic position might be an anti-sexual one, others have noticed before me that Isabella uses an erotic language to persuade the corrupt magistrate Angelo:

Go to your bosom, / Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know / That’s like my brother’s fault.  If it confess / A natural guiltiness, such as is his, / Let it sound a thought upon your tongue / Against my brother’s life [II:ii].

Angelo’s aside:

She speaks, and ’tis such sense / That my sense breeds with it [II:ii].

William Empson pointed out, cogently, that the first “sense” connotes reason, while the second “sense” connotes sensuality.  Angelo is clearly turned on by Isabella’s coldness (and rationality).  The colder (and more rational) she appears, the more he desires her (of course).  Isabella wishes “a more strict restraint” than her nun colleagues enjoy [I:iv].  She plays on Angelo’s masochism AND sadism:

[W]ere I under the terms of death, / Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield / My body up to shame [II:iv].

There is no question that Isabella is trying to turn Angelo on by talking about “stripping herself.”  Nor is there any question that she is succeeding.  There is no question, either, that Isabella is exciting Angelo’s masochism by her refusal to submit to his sexual will.  She is quite revealing when she says to Angelo: “I had rather give my body than my soul” [II:iv].  And yet she never gives her body to the reprobate deputy.  When Angelo, in one of Shakespeare’s wondrous soliloquies, listens to himself speak, we get a glimpse into the character’s inner experience:

Dost thou desire her foully for those things / That make her good? [II:ii].

The question is rhetorical.  Angelo is thrilled by the idea of violating her celibacy.  Polluting what is holy and dragging it down into the mud–that is what excites him.  He is corrupt.  Why shouldn’t everyone else in the world be?  I hear in Angelo’s “We are all frail” [II:iv] a failed attempt at identification with Isabella: He can never be as pure as she, so she must become as impure as he.


As I stated at the beginning of this analysis, Measure for Measure suggests that corruption is inherent to the structure of all political authority.  The Duke has the same designs as his substitute.  After all, both Angelo and Vincentio desire and pursue the same person: the celibate Isabella.

When the Duke visits Friar Thomas, the former quickly waves away the idea that he could ever have a sexual thought:

No.  Holy father, throw away that thought; / Believe not that the dribbling dart of love / Can pierce a complete bosom [I:iii].

This is trickery.  The Duke might not seem as aggressively amorous as Angelo or as libertine as Lucio, but he does desire women or, at least, a particular woman: Isabella.

Is Duke Vincentio indeed a “gentleman of all temperance” [III:ii]?  According to Lucio, “He’s a better woodman than thou tak’st him for” [IV:iii].  A “woodman” is a hunter of women.  What if Lucio is telling the truth?  And why does the thin-skinned Duke castigate and punish Lucio for having insinuated that the latter has a pulse?

Is the Duke’s self-withdrawal and self-disguising a cunning stratagem to seduce Isabella?  This cannot be exactly the case, for the Duke never, in fact, seduces Isabella.  He commands her to marry him.  And then the Duke compels others to be married, whether they want to be married or not: Lucio is forced to marry the punk Kate Keep-down and Angelo is forced to marry Mariana, whom he abandoned once the dowry was lost.  As they enter into compulsory matrimony, the Duke must say goodbye to the “life remov’d” [I:iii] as the novice nun Isabella must say goodbye to her celibacy and dedication to things atemporal.

Isabella never says a word after the Duke compels her to marry him.  Her silence is ear-splitting.  How are we to understand Isabella’s silence?  Is it the silence of shock?  The silence of assent?  And who is Varrius, and why does he have nothing to say?

Reading the play is like looking into an abyss.  Every depth leads to a deeper profundity.  It would be impossible to exhaust the meanings that this magnificent play generates.

Joseph Suglia

THE TRACE OF THE FATHER: A review of SPUR DES VATERS (Peter Schuenemann) by Dr. Joseph Suglia


by Joseph Suglia

One of the most enduring myths in the history of literature is that the traces of a writer’s paternity can be erased, that the literary artist is parthenogenetically or autogenetically created.  One witnesses this myth not merely in the work of authors who have taken it explicitly as their subject, such as Joyce or Artaud; as Peter Schuenemann suggests in Spur des Vaters, the reader may also discover the lineaments of this myth in less likely places.  Each of the five authors Schuenemann analyzes–Lessing, Goethe, Freud, Thomas Mann, and Benn, all giants of the German literary canon–self-deceptively struggles to wipe out the traces of fatherhood in his writing, only to discover, despairingly and belatedly, that these traces are, in fact, ineffaceable.

Schuenemann examines the points at which each author’s psychological history collides with the trajectory of his writing.  Lessing’s desire to detach himself from the sway of the father corresponds to his desire to detach himself from all forms of heteronomy and religious orthodoxy.  According to Schuenemann, “Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts” is, at once, a history of humanity’s progress from intellectual obscurity to enlightenment and also Lessing’s self-interpretive attempt to document his movement from slavish dependence on the father to the attainment of total self-sufficiency.  When, in the “Duplik,” Lessing voluntarily loosens his grip on “the truth itself,” this renunciation corresponds to Lessing’s own disillusionment with his father, who, like a mendacious and deceptive god, reserves the truth “for himself alone.”  The Patheismusstreit and the quarrel with the apoplectic pastor of Hamburg are interpreted through the speculum of Lessing’s conflict with his father’s dogmatism.  Lessing’s transcendental interpretation of Goethe’s “Prometheus,” for instance, is derived from a personal desire for self-sovereignty that, in its extremism, anticipates Stirnerian egoism.  Nonetheless, there is no absolute break with the father, no clear point at which Lessing moved toward self-sufficiency.  One of the central contradictions in Lessing’s work–and, by extension, in the Aufklaerung as such–consists in its uncanny resemblance to the conventional theologies that it professes to despise.

Schuenemann discovers analogous traces of fatherhood in the writing of Goethe.  In the years following his return from Italy (1797), Goethe takes on his father’s resemblance, in spite of his repeated attempts to dissolve all ties to his biological provenance.  For his entire life, Freud is deeply preoccupied with parricide (Die Traumdeutung, Totem und Tabu, Dostojewski und die Vatertoetung, and Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion all contain this motif).  Nonetheless, Freud is unable to kill off the father, and his seeming atheism (Die Zukunft einer Illusion, Unbehagen in der Kultur) does nothing to change this fact.  Classical psychoanalysis is inextricably entwined with Talmudic religiosity.  Soldiers sacrifice their lives to satisfy their fathers’ bloodlust in the danse macabre that concludes Mann’s Der Zauberberg.  Though his Nietzschean anti-humanism explicitly distances Benn from involvement in the forms of religiosity, there persists in his lyric a “Fanatismus zur Transcendenz.”  In every context, the author in question confronts the paradox of sublation.

Since Hegel, it has been assumed that what is annihilated is absorbed and brought to a higher level.  One of the meanings to be derived from Schuenemann’s account is that the dialectic of paternity is merciless in its omnipresence.  Try to destroy the father.  Try to erase every trace of his existence.  The more you try to negate the father, the more you shall resemble him.

Joseph Suglia


A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia : LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST (Shakespeare) / An Analysis of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST by Shakespeare / Analysis of William Shakespeare’s LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST / Interpretation of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST by William Shakespeare

A review of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia

We fall in love with our own hallucinations, according to the most rigorous of the “comedies” (if it is one), Love’s Labour’s Lost (circa 1595-1597).  As the title itself announces, this will not be a typical Shakespearean comedy in which everyone gets married, whether they want to or not.  From the final scene:

Our wooing doth not end like an old play:
Jack hath not Jill [V:ii].

Courtship does not result in conjugality, but rather in the weak promise of deferred gratification: King Ferdinand “falls in love” with the Princess of France, who forces the Navarrean ruler to wait for her for an entire year.  Berowne “falls in love” with the mysterious Rosaline, who forces the Navarrean lord to wait for her for an entire year (all while doing charity work at a hospital).  There is absolutely no reason to believe that the Princess of France will give herself to King Ferdinand, nor is there any reason to believe that any of the French ladies will give themselves to the Navarrean lords, Berowne, Dumain, and Longaville.  The play ends, without ever ending, with the indefinite postponement of erotic fulfillment.

The King demands payment for the province of Aquitaine from the Princess of France.  In vain.  Just as his desire to be paid for Aquitaine is disappointed, the King’s lust for the Princess is disappointed.  Not merely is it the case that the male desire to conquer the female fades into libidinal nonfulfillment (or “erotic defeat,” to use Harold Bloom’s term); the male desire to accumulate wealth fades into financial nonfulfillment.  Women outwit their male suitors in this puckish farce, a sophisticated problematical comedy that ridicules all of its male characters and extols the brilliance of its ladies, who emerge looking far from foolish.  To quote the Princess of France:

[P]raise we may afford
To any lady that subdues a lord [IV:i].

A feast of language in which the characters dine on scraps, the play mocks the speech of the hypereducated and of the undereducated alike.  The speech of the pedants Holofernes and Nathaniel is all but unintelligible, since they speak Latin as often as they speak English and obsessively employ synonymia.  (Synonymia: a long sequence of successive synonyms.)  The magnificent Don Adriano de Armado, who avoids common expressions as if they were strains of the Ebola virus, is admirable and ridiculous at the same time.  He obsessively employs synonymia and tatutologia.  (Tautologia: a tiresome repetition of the same idea in different words.)  The rustic Costard only talks in malapropisms, mistaking “reprehend” for “represent,” “adversity” for “prosperity,” “manner” for “manor,” “desolation” for “consolation,” “collusion” for “allusion,” and so forth.  Somewhat implausibly, Costard is also the bearer of a word that seems above him, one of the longest words in the English language: honorificabilitudinitatibus (“to be gifted with honors”).  Berowne is perhaps Shakespeare’s linguistic ideal, since he neither utters malapropisms nor translates his every word into Latin.  He is mocked in other ways.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is probably Shakespeare’s filthiest play, as well, with at least two lines that sound like they belong to a hit song by Ke$ha:

Thou canst not hit it, hit it, hit it,
Thou canst not hit it, my good man [IV:i].

Two metaphorical strands are woven throughout the play.  The first series of metaphors concerns the opposition between the spring and the winter.  This one leaves me cold.  The second metaphorical filament is immeasurably more interesting than the first: Ocular and optical metaphors proliferate throughout the play, which concerns the act of seeing and the relationship between seeing and desiring.

The men of this imaginary world have a purely visual interest in their female “beloveds.”  For example, the entire sensorium of Navarre, according to Boyet, attending lord to the Princess of France, is housed in his eyesight:

All senses to that sense [eyesight] did make their repair,
To feel only looking on fairest of fair.
Methought all his senses were lock’d in his eye,
As jewels in crystal for some prince to buy [II:i].

Berowne’s fear, or so he says, is the loss of his eyesight from reading too much.  He would much rather study a woman’s physiognomy:

Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile
So, ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
Study me how to please the eye indeed,
By fixing it upon a fairer eye [I:i].

The meaning of the first verse quoted seems to be: “Eyes that seek intellectual enlightenment are distracted from the light of truth, which comes from the eyes of a woman.”  In the late sixteenth century, it was still believed that the human eye produced light beams.  This idea, known as the “emission theory,” is at least as old as Plato.

All the eyes disclose are illusions.  Moth, Armado’s page, makes this point in rhyme:

If she be made of white and red,
Her faults will ne’er be known;
For blushing cheeks by faults are bred,
And fears by pale white shown.
Then if she fear, or be to blame,
By this you shall not know;
For still her cheeks possess the same
Which native she doth owe [I:ii].

What the peasant woman Jaquenetta is thinking and feeling Armado will never know.  (Here we have the charming mixing of social classes that is so common in Shakespeare.)  What the even more enigmatic Rosaline is thinking and feeling Berowne will never know.  Again, the desire to master the totality of Woman is frustrated.

The unknowability of the object of desire is perfectly dramatized in the second scene of the fifth act.  At the beginning of the scene (the scene itself is 1,003 lines long), the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting are in the park, ridiculing the gifts, letters, and attentions that they have received from their gentlemen callers.  Boyet informs the Princess that he eavesdropped upon the king and his lords, who are planning to accost the ladies while disguised as Russians.  The Princess orders the ladies to wear masks and swap the gifts that they received from the lords so that Katherine will be mistaken for Maria, and the Princess will be confused with Rosaline.  When the men arrive, disguised, the ladies have their backs turned to them.  As Moth remarks:

A holy parcel of the fairest dames / That ever turn’d their—backs—to mortal views!

Each man is disguised and therefore exchangeable with another; each woman’s face is veiled and is therefore exchangeable with another.  Bodies are clothed; faces are inscrutable.  All that is visible is the eyes.  If you would like to find the authentic precursors of Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), look no further.

The women of Love’s Labour’s Lost are unknowable to the male characters, for the men only know the figures that they have created.  In scene after scene of Shakespeare’s great play, we encounter men who love themselves more than the women they profess to adore.  For instance, Boyet loves not his mistress, but his own language.  As the Princess says of his overblown encomium to her beauty:

I am less proud to hear you tell my worth
Than you much willing to be counted wise
In spending your wit in the praise of mine [II:i].

Ingenuously or disingenuously (which will never be discovered), Berowne asks Rosaline (some versions, erroneously, say ‘Katherine’):

Did I not dance with you in Brabant once? [II:i].

Berowne does not even seem to recognize the woman whom he “loves.”  She mockingly repeats his leading question:

Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?

Repeating his question, she neither confirms nor denies its suggestion that such a dance had ever taken place.  Whereas Bloom proposed Did I Not Dance with You in Brabant Once? as an alternative title to the play, I would suggest Last Year at Brabant, echoing, of course, the cinematic masterwork of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, Last Year at Marienbad (1962).  We know nothing of the prehistory of these lovers, if lovers they be.  It is indeed entirely possible that their prehistory is wholly imaginary, that Rosaline is playfully assuming the fictitious role that Berowne has imposed on her.  For Berowne loves only his own reflection, the mirror image that is reflected in her eyes.  As he says (in prose):

By this light, but for her eye, I would not love her—yes, for her two eyes [IV:iii].

Berowne loves Rosaline, then, because she is a reflective surface.  “What do you see when you look at me?”: This is Berowne’s implicit question.  And Berowne is not the only autoeroticist in the play.  From the King of Navarre himself, in a letter to the Princess of France:

But do not love thyself; then thou wilt keep
My tears for glasses, and still make me weep [IV:iii].

Translation: “Don’t love yourself!  Love me!”

With these words Berowne describes the beauty of Rosaline:

A whitely wanton with a velvet brow,
With two pitch balls stuck in her face for eyes;
Ay, and, by heaven, one that will do the deed,
Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard [III:i].

Argus, the monster with one hundred eyes, is the castrated guard who protects the woman with sightless eyes.  And into those null eyes Berowne looks and sees what he wants to see.  He introjects his own images into the blackness.  What does he see in Rosaline’s eyeless eyes?  Nothing but himself.  Her pitch balls are as black as the eyes of a chicken, and there is nothing but his own Self to be seen within their unfathomable, fathomless blackness.

All interpretation is projection, since interpretation is drawn not to objects, but to the absence of objects.  We desire to interpret not when there is something to interpret, but when there is nothing to interpret.

Joseph Suglia

The Horse Dealer’s Daughter (D.H. Lawrence): An Analysis

N.B. This is a severely truncated version of a much longer study of “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence.  The complete edition is about 10,000 words long.

* * * * *

THE HORSE DEALER’S DAUGHTER (D.H. Lawrence): An Analysis

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

from England, My England (1922)

“My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is!  Nothing but ************ cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest…  what old and hard-worked staleness, masquerading as the all new!”

—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce

“James Joyce bores me stiff—too terribly would-be and done-on-purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life.”

—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce

“What a stupid olla podrida of the Bible and so forth James Joyce is: just stewed-up fragments of quotation in the sauce of a would-be dirty mind.  Such effort!  Such exertion!  sforzato davvero!”

—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce

“[D.H. Lawrence] is a propagandist and a very bad writer.”

—James Joyce on D.H. Lawrence

From the third paragraph of “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence is the following sentence:

There was a strange air of ineffectuality about the three men, as they sprawled at table, smoking and reflecting vaguely on their own condition.

The word sprawl is used for the first time here (it will be used twice more in the text).  To sprawl is to spread oneself out irregularly and unevenly.  The three Pervin brothers—Joe, Fred Henry, and Malcolm—are positioned perversely around the table, positioned in a way that suggests their collective stupidity; they are asprawlSprawled makes them appear insensate, callous, obtuse, stolid.


Sprawling denotes a mindless subhuman inactivity (I will return to the motif of subhumanity below).

Stupidity is the inability to grasp even basic concepts, and in that sense, all three brothers are stupid.  They are not even individual entities (they are not “alone” in the sense that Mabel is “alone”); they form an undifferentiated “ineffectual conclave.”  They cannot apprehend that their sister is geared toward the absence of all relations which is death–self-imposed death.

Safe in their stupidity, the brothers are sprawlingly looking forward to their eviction from their father’s house, whereas the youngest (?) daughter in the family, Mabel Pervin, is conscious of, and sensitively sensitive to the loss of her dignity, to the loss of her status, and to the curtailing of her possibilities.  The men in the story propose that she might become a nurse, she might become a skivvy, or, worst of all, she might become someone’s wife.  It is important to stress that she wants to become none of these things.

Mabel is not sprawling around the table: Unlike her brothers, who are only able to reflect “vaguely,” her external “impassive fixity” masquerades a hive of conscious activity (I will return to the “impassiveness” of Mabel’s exterior below).

The great draught-horses swung past.

The word swing comes into play for the first time here (it will be deployed four times altogether in the text).  Swung: This connotes a mechanical back-and-forth movement.  Motion without any consciousness.  The idiocy of the boys’ sprawling is correlated with the idiocy of the horses’ swinging.  The horses are swinging their great rounded haunches sumptuously (in a manner that pleases the senses, but not the intellect).  Their movement shows a massive, slumbrous strength (the intellect is asleep).  They rock behind the hedges in a motionlike sleep (they only seem to be kinetic; they are mindlessly static).

Draught-horse: a large horse that is used for bearing heavy loads.

Joe watched with glazed hopeless eyes.  The horses were almost like his own body to him…  He would marry and go into harness.  His life was over, he would be a subject animal now.

D.H. Lawrence gets himself into some trouble here.  He tells too much (which is unlike him) and shows too little (which is unlike him).  I can write without fear of repudiation or of exaggeration that this is the weakest passage in the story.  The writing of this passage is didactic / propagandistic (to refer to the Joycean epigraph above).  It is far too explicit and spells out what should have been left to the reader to decode: Joe is looking forward to an engagement to a woman as old as himself and therefore to financial safety, and this “safety” is the safety of a kept animal.  A domesticated animal.  Marriage will reduce him to subjection.  He will lose his vitality.  He will lose his human spontaneity.

[W]ith foolish restlessness, [Joe] reached for the scraps of bacon-rind from the plates, and making a faint whistling sound, flung them to the terrier that lay against the fender.  He watched the dog swallow them, and waited till the creature looked into his eyes.

And what is in those doggy eyes other than the nullity of animal stupidity, a stupidity that reflects his own stupidity?  What is in those eyes other than the likeness of his own animal insensibility?

The flinging of the bacon corresponds to the swinging of the horses.  The word swing, etymologically, means “to fling”—the Old High German word swingan means “to rush” or “to fling.”  The idiocy of the mechanical movement of swinging corresponds the idiocy of the mechanical movement of flinging.  The etymology of swing further establishes a metaphorical connection between Joe and the animals of the story (the dog, the horses).

The equine and canine metaphors bestialize all of the brothers.  (Joe, in particular, is described as straddling his knees “in real horsy fashion”; he seems “to have his tail between his legs,” etc.)  They are all dull, dim beasts, animals that will soon be subjected to the yoke of marriage and of other forms of servitude (labor, etc.).  As all domestic beasts, they will become subject to human authority.  To be an animal, according to the metaphorics of the text, means to be subjected to human power.  As mentioned above, Joe will soon be subordinated to the bestial subjection of marriage.  To draw out one the implications of the text: A married couple resembles two animals yoked together.

The face of the young woman darkened, but she sat on immutable.

Mabel, on the other hand, is described as seeming immutable (once) and impassive (four times): not incapable of emotion or without affectability, but inscrutable, as withholding herself from expression, from saying and speaking.  Impassivity, here, means not the absence of emotion, but rather, inexpressivenessExpression will become important in the third and final act of the story.

‘I’ll be seeing you tonight, shall I?’ he said to his friend.

‘Ay—where’s it to be?  Are we going over to Jessdale?’

‘I don’t know.  I’ve got such a cold on me.  I’ll come round to the Moon and Stars, anyway.’

‘Let Lizzie and May miss their night for once, eh?’

‘That’s it—if I feel as I do now.’

No one appears to know what “Jessdale” refers to—whether it is the name of a fabricated city or the name of an inn or a bar–but I suspect that it is the name of a bordello and that Lizzie and May are prostitutes therein.  If I am correct about this (and I am), Jack Fergusson is (initially) a rogue and a roué, someone who isn’t the least interested in marriage.  What, then, draws Mabel to him in the first place?  Could it be his relative freedom from convention and from the constraints of bourgeois society?

But so long as there was money, the girl felt herself established, and brutally proud, reserved.

Her father was once a well-off horse dealer.  No more.  Now comes the shame that is killing her.

She would follow her own way just the same.  She would always hold the keys of her own situation.  Mindless and persistent, she endured from day to day.  Why should she think?  Why should she answer anybody?  It was enough that this was the end, and there was no way out.  She need not pass any more darkly along the main street of the small town, avoiding every eye.  She need not demean herself any more, going into the shops and buying the cheapest food.  This was at an end.  She thought of nobody, not even of herself.  Mindless and persistent, she seemed in a sort of ecstasy to be coming nearer to her fulfilment, her own glorification, approaching her dead mother, who was glorified.

* * * * *

* * * * *

* * * * *

* * * * *

Unhappily, Jack Fergusson will (try to) take away her godlike freedom and subjugate her to the conjugal yoke.

It was a grey, wintry day, with saddened, dark-green fields and an atmosphere blackened by the smoke of foundries not far off.

As Martin Amis reminds us, D.H. Lawrence never took a breath without pain.  Lawrence died of emphysema at the age of forty-four.  He knew too well the colliers of Northampton, near where this story takes place.  Could it be that the smoke from the foundries that are blackening the sky also blackened Lawrence’s lungs?  Are the black billows that Mabel sees the same black billows that killed her creator?

It gave [Mabel] sincere satisfaction to [tidy her mother’s grave].  She felt in immediate contact with the world of her mother.  She took minute pains, went through the park in a state bordering on pure happiness, as if in performing this task she came into a subtle, intimate connexion with her mother.  For the life she followed here in the world was far less real than the world of death she inherited from her mother.

Here, I would like to make the rather obvious point that suicide, not merely the tiding of her mother’s grave, would bring Mabel into a subtle and intimate connection with her mother.

[Fergusson] slowly ventured into the pond.  The bottom was deep, soft clay, he sank in, and the water clasped dead cold round his legs.  As he stirred he could smell the cold, rotten clay that fouled up into the water.  It was objectionable in his lungs.  Still, repelled and yet not heeding, he moved deeper into the pond.  The cold water rose over his thighs, over his loins, upon his abdomen.  The lower part of his body was all sunk in the hideous cold element.  And the bottom was so deeply soft and uncertain, he was afraid of pitching with his mouth underneath.  He could not swim, and was afraid.

It is as if Jack Fergusson’s body were being liquefied, as if his body were being fluidified in the aqueous deeps of the pond.  Or is his body being softened into clay?  The clay suggests, perhaps, the amorphous clay of the golem.  In Jewish mysticism, the golem is a clay figure that comes alive once a magical combination of letters is inscribed on its forehead: emeth (“truth” in Hebrew).  If you erase the aleph from the word emeth, the golem will collapse into dust (meth means “dead”).  (See Gershom Scholem’s seminal book On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, Chapter Five.)

And so doing he lost his balance and went under, horribly, suffocating in the foul earthy water, struggling madly for a few moments.  At last, after what seemed an eternity, he got his footing, rose again into the air and looked around.  He gasped, and knew he was in the world.  Then he looked at the water.  She had risen near him.  He grasped her clothing, and drawing her nearer, turned to take his way to land again.

He went very slowly, carefully, absorbed in the slow progress.  He rose higher, climbing out of the pond.  The water was now only about his legs; he was thankful, full of relief to be out of the clutches of the pond.  He lifted her and staggered on to the bank, out of the horror of wet, grey clay.

He laid her down on the bank.  She was quite unconscious and running with water.  He made the water come from her mouth, he worked to restore her.  He did not have to work very long before he could feel the breathing begin again in her; she was breathing naturally.  He worked a little longer.  He could feel her live beneath his hands; she was coming back.

The pond is the uterine vessel through which Mabel undergoes her palingenesis, her renaissance, her second birth.  It is as if some tellurian current were transferred within her.  She dies in the pond and is brought back to the life upon the bank.  Her body has been revived, and yet her consciousness is still slumbering.  Her total revivification will take place in the house, now desolate, upon the hearthrug, by the fireplace.

Who dwells within the house?  Consider the following: Mabel’s father has died.  Her three brothers have evacuated the house.  Her sister is long gone.  The dog and the horses are gone.

No one is alive in the house except for the spirit of her dead mother.

‘Do you love me then?’ she asked.

He only stood and stared at her, fascinated.  His soul seemed to melt.

She shuffled forward on her knees, and put her arms round him, round his legs, as he stood there, pressing her breasts against his knees and thighs, clutching him with strange, convulsive certainty, pressing his thighs against her, drawing him to her face, her throat, as she looked up at him with flaring, humble eyes, of transfiguration, triumphant in first possession.

Emerging from the pond an amorphous mass of clay, Jack will now be resculpted by Mabel into her own creature.  He will be completely reconstructed.  His body was already likened to clay when it was immersed in the pond.  Now his soul, too, is melting into the shapeless stuff of the pond-clay.  Note that Mabel’s eyes are “of transfiguration”: It is she who is transfiguring Jack into her own effigy.  She is the creator; he is the golem.

He had never thought of loving her.  He had never wanted to love her.  When he rescued her and restored her, he was a doctor, and she was a patient.  He had had no single personal thought of her.  Nay, this introduction of the personal element was very distasteful to him, a violation of his professional honour.  It was horrible to have her there embracing his knees.  It was horrible.  He revolted from it, violently.  And yet—and yet—he had not the power to break away.

There is indeed something horrible going on in this passage, given that Jack is powerlessly being shaped, rounded, molded into something that is not of his own making.

‘You love me,’ she repeated, in a murmur of deep, rhapsodic assurance.  ‘You love me.’

Her hands were drawing him, drawing him down to her.  He was afraid, even a little horrified.  For he had, really, no intention of loving her.  Yet her hands were drawing him towards her.

I only want to underline something in the text: She is drawing him toward her.  Repeatedly, it is emphasized that Jack is being reconstructed against his own will into something that is not of his own creation.

The assertion “You love me” is a performative speech act.  But is it an illocutionary or perlocutionary speech act?  If it were an illocutionary speech act, “You love me” would be a description of what is being done, such as, “I now pronounce you man and wife” or “I move that we adjourn the meeting.”  And yet Mabel is not saying, “I seduce you” or “I make you love me.”

It is, rather, a perlocutionary speech act: that is, a speech act that is designed to have an effect on someone’s thoughts, feelings, or actions.

Every human being you meet will want to impress one’s fingerprints upon you, as if you were a ball of clay.  A perlocutionary speech act is the attempt to mold someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or actions through words.

‘You love me?’ she said, rather faltering.

‘Yes.’  The word cost him a painful effort.  Not because it wasn’t true.  But because it was too newly true, the saying seemed to tear open again his newly-torn heart.  And he hardly wanted it to be true, even now.





Much in the way that letters inscribed on the forehead of the statue bring to life the golem, the words “You love me” form a perlocutionary performative speech act that gives Jack Fergusson a second birth.  Mabel Pervin has destroyed and recreated him.

‘And my hair smells so horrible,’ she murmured in distraction.  ‘And I’m so awful, I’m so awful!  Oh, no, I’m too awful.’  And she broke into bitter, heart-broken sobbing.  ‘You can’t want to love me, I’m horrible.’

‘Don’t be silly, don’t be silly,’ he said, trying to comfort her, kissing her, holding her in his arms. ‘I want you, I want to marry you, we’re going to be married, quickly, quickly—to-morrow if I can.’

But she only sobbed terribly, and cried:

‘I feel awful. I feel awful. I feel I’m horrible to you.’

‘No, I want you, I want you,’ was all he answered, blindly, with that terrible intonation which frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her.

There are two “horrors” intimated in these words, the final words of the story.  The first horror is the horrified apprehension that Mabel will become her mother.  That is to say, Mabel is horrified that she will be mired in the same soul-deadening stupidity in which her mother was steeped and in which her brothers are steeped.  We return, then, to the opening moments of the text: to the image of the yoked horses (which figures marriage as subordination and subjection to the will of another).  The second horror is that she will be undesired or no longer desired.

Consider this: Mabel has created a golem that will desire her, a male Pygmalion, a Frankensteinian monster.  And now, her creation desires her too much.  Golem-making is dangerous, as Scholem reminds us, but the source of danger is not the golem itself, or the forces emanating from the golem, but rather the conflict that arises within the golem-maker herself.  It is a conflict between the horror of being desired by one’s creature and the horror of not being desired enough by one’s creature or the horror of not being desired at all, the horror of undesirability.  It is a conflict between the horror of being-desired and the horror of the absence of being-desired.

Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of THE WINTER’S TALE (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia / An Analysis of THE WINTER’S TALE by William Shakespeare

An Analysis of THE WINTER’S TALE (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

J’énonce que le discours analytique ne se soutient que de l’énoncé qu’il n’y a pas, qu’il est impossible de poser le rapport sexuel.

—Jacques Lacan

Shakespeare’s time believed in the Great Chain of Being: the idea that the cosmos is linked together by a natural order.  Human beings ascend above non-human animals; vegetation descends below both.  Inanimate matter has its place at the bottom of the hierarchy.  All entities are connected in relations of interdependence; every thing has its own place, and every thing is dependent upon every other thing.  There are hidden agreements between all things in the world.

Social classes, too, are organized by the Great Chain of Being.  Monarchies have their proper place and were preordained by the cosmos.  Shakespeare’s early and middle comedies shore up the idea that social order is a manifestation of the natural order.  As I have stated repeatedly, the comedies are works of conjugal propaganda in which the principals are coerced into marriage.  Marriage was seen as the threshold to total socialization, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  No matter what disturbances destabilize the relations between the characters in the first four acts of each comedy, all of these relations will be restored in the fifth act with the compulsion of marriage.

This is not quite always the case in the problematical plays.  Love’s Labour’s Lost ends without ever really ending; it fizzles out with the vague promise of erotic fulfillment.  All’s Well That Ends Well only ends well from a purely formal and external point of view.  I have written that Shakespeare is both the most underestimated and the most overestimated of writers in the English canon, and this is absolutely evident when one considers that the order-restoring comedies (such as The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are overrated and the order-destabilizing comedies (if this is the right word) are underrated (though there has been a surge of interest in the latter in recent years).

The problematical plays show the unlinking of the Great Chain of Being.  The Winter’s Tale, which is one of Shakespeare’s late plays (composed circa 1610), does not allow the young boy Mamillius to be revived, even though both Perdita and Hermione are resurrected.  Though there is a reconciliation of what has been ruptured at the close of the play, it is a queasy and uneasy reconciliation.  These are discordances in the harmonizations of the Great Chain of Being.

Not only that: The Winter’s Tale is paradoxically heterogeneous and heterogeneously paradoxical.  One cannot, without simplification, say that the play is a comedy, nor can one say, with justification, that it is simply a tragedy or even a romance.  It is a gallimaufry of tragedy, comedy, and romance.  Boundaries are crossed within the play itself.  In Act Three: Scene Three, the Clown points out that the rain along the shore of Bohemia is so intense that he cannot tell what is sea and what is sky (though Bohemia does not have a shore, and this was generally recognized in the early sixteenth century!); the boundary between sea and sky has been traversed and has become indistinguishable: “I have seen two such sights, by sea and by land! but I am not to say it is a sea, for it is now the sky: betwixt the firmament and it you cannot thrust a bodkin’s point.”  While this might seem a throwaway line, there are no throwaway lines in Shakespeare.

Even the matter of the Bear is non-arbitrary, no matter how much its appearance elicits laughter in audiences.  Without the becoming-comedic of the action, the seriousness of the play would have become laughable.  The comedy of the third and fourth acts enhances the seriousness that precedes it.  With the intrusion of the Bear, which devours Antigonus, the play transforms from a tragedy to a comedy.  We get a prescient sense of this transformation when, at one of the darkest moments of the play, Antigonus says that the wrongful accusation of the queen will bring everyone to “laughter” [I:ii].  It is as if, when he says this, he is predestinating his own ursinely induced death, which will bring about a change in genre.

The Bear is at the center of the play.  By this, I do not merely mean that the intrusion of the Bear changes the play from a tragedy to a comedy (for what could be more laughter-provoking than an old man being eaten by a bear?).  I mean that the word bear, and variants thereof, proliferates throughout the text.

The overbearing King of Sicilia, Leontes, is convinced that his wife, Queen Hermione, has cheated upon him.  I shall return to his conviction that she is a barefaced adulteress below; it is most likely a bugbear of his imagination (please bear this in mind).  Leontes makes the bearish suggestion to Camillo, his lord, that the latter poison the man who allegedly cuckolded him: Polixenes, King of Bohemia.  Camillo is embarrassed by the idea and forbears from poisoning Polixenes.  He cannot bear the thought of killing the Bohemian king.  Leontes accuses all of his lords of treason and declares the bearing of his children, Mamillius and Perdita, to have issued from Polixenes.  The beardless boy that Hermione has borne, Mamillius, who is likely barely five years old, dies when he hears the unbearable news that his mother has been sentenced for adultery and treason.  Hermione cannot bear the strain and collapses.  The pallbearers bear their bodies away to be buried in the same grave.  Antigonus leaves the barne Perdita in the barren wilderness of Bohemia, where Antigonus is devoured by the Bear.

Is Hermione an adulteress?  There is no scriptorial evidence to support the assertion that she is; there is no scriptorial evidence to support the assertion that she is not.  One of the many ambiguities of the play, Hermione’s putative adultery can neither be definitively affirmed nor definitively rejected.  Leontes is persuaded of her faithlessness when he sees her clasping hands with Polixenes.  On the surface, this appears to be a faulty inference from inductive logic.  In fact, it is a faulty inference from deductive logic.

Students of logic will recognize the distinction between inductive and deductive logic.  “Induction” comes from the Latin inducere, means “to lead into.”  It is logic that journeys into an assertion from evidence.  “Deduction” comes from the Latin deducere, which means “to move away from.”  It is logic that moves away from an assertion to evidence.

Leontes has decided in advance that Hermione is an adulteress, and this implies that he is practicing deductive logic, though fallaciously.  He begins with his fixed idea and then seeks evidence to support his idea.  He is engaging in confirmation bias: that is, he seeks out evidence to corroborate the hypothesis to which he is emotionally pre-attached.  All of the “evidence” that he uncovers is faulty; it does not prove what he wants it to prove.  However, the opposite is also the case: Anyone who says that Hermione is innocent is being suppositious; such an idea is purely notional in the absence of proof.  She might be innocent; she might be guilty.  The question of her innocence remains unanswerable.

Unlike Othello, who, at least, does not believe in his wife’s infidelity until he uncovers articles of ocular proof (which hardly prove anything at all), Leontes automatically (for once, the adjective is justified) believes in his wife’s infidelity.  Polixenes stays at his wife’s behest, not at his own.  Polixenes and Hermione clasp hands.  This is all of the “evidence” of his wife’s infidelity that Leontes requires.  The flimsiness of such “evidence”—or of such non-evidence—should nourish our suspicion that Leontes is finding what he is seeking.

Leontes is desperate to find a reason to condemn Hermione of faithlessness.  Hermione herself comments on Leontes’ insistent passionate desperateness to find evidence of treachery where there is none, to find a spider in the wine that he drinks when there is no such spider: “I’ll be sworn you would believe my saying, / Howe’er you lean to the nayward” [II:i].  Like all of the jealous, Leontes leans to the nayward: He is inclined to believe in infidelity of his wife, not to disbelieve in it.  When he is challenged by his retinue to give reasons for his suspicion, Leontes asks, rhetorically, “Why, what need we / Commune with you of this, but rather follow / Our forceful instigation?” [II:i].  Instigation: The word suggests impulsiveness without reason.

Jealousy makes projective interpreters of us all.  When we are jealous, we find what we project.  As La Rochefoucauld puts it, jealousy has much more to do with self-love than it has to do with love.

Leontes is married to his own opinion that his wife, Polixenes, and Camillo are treacherous, and this marriage-to-his-own-opinion throws him into transports: “How I blest am I / In my just censure, in my true opinion!” [II:i].  He delights when his fantasies of jealousy are imaginarily confirmed.  Why is this?

I would posit the following: It does not matter whether Hermione has cheated upon Leontes.  Leontes wants Hermione to cheat upon him.

The question now is not: Is Hermione unfaithful?  The question is rather: Why does Leontes need to believe that Hermione is unfaithful?  Why does he have the emotional and psychological need to believe that his wife is cheating upon him?

Leontes wants Hermione to cheat upon him because he wants her to be an impossibility.  He wants her to be inaccessible.  He wants her to be desirable yet without desire for him.  She can only remain desirable by having no desire for him.

Leontes is a masochistic narcissist.  Even if the husband were correct and Hermione were unfaithful, Leontes’ jealousy would still be pathological (to again channel Lacan).  He must sustain the fantasy of infidelity in order to maintain his status as the desirer of the impossible.  To be loved by a faithful wife would collapse the distance between the masochistic Leontes and the woman he desires.

When Lacan wrote that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship, “Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel chez l’être parlant,” one of the things that he might have meant was that the desirer does not have a relationship with the one whom he desires.  The man who desires a woman is self-related; even if there is physical contact with the woman he desires, this is only the culmination of his self-relatedness.  If he experiences any pleasure, it is his own pleasure that he is experiencing.  He is only interested in the woman as a medium for his own pleasure (the masculine pronoun seems justified, since I am alluding to Leontes).  Sexuality forecloses a relation, a rapport, with the other human being.  All eroticism is autoeroticism.  At this point, Professor Alain Badiou, former Chair of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, would interject that only through love could one gain access to the totality of the other human being, but this implication is not contained in Lacan’s statement.  And how could one ever gain access to the totality of another human being?

“Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel chez l’être parlant”: This means (among other things) that it is impossible to find love through eroticism, since eroticism is without relation to any human beings other than to the self.

At the conclusion of the play, a magnificent statue is unveiled before Leontes and his entourage.  It is the statue of Hermione.  This has led four centuries of readers and spectators to wonder: “Did she die and then come back to life?  Or was she alive all along, ensconced by Paulina?”  Even more strangely: “Is this really a statue that we are seeing, and, if it is, how could the statue have been reanimated?”

To turn to the first question: Did Hermione die, and was she then revived from the dead?  At the end of Act Two, we are told that both mother and son will be inhumed in the same grave—but were they?  This remains a supposition.  If Hermione does not die, why does she appear to Antigonus as a floaty revenant “in pure white robes” [III:iii]?  Or is this a dream?  Antigonus tells us that he does “believe / Hermione hath suffer’d death” [III:iii], but why should we believe what he believes?  In a play that is fraught with disguises and self-disguisings (Polixenes, Camillo, and Autolycus all dissimulate themselves), is it not thinkable that Hermione has been concealed for fifteen years until the mourning of the King has transmuted into full-blown melancholia?  What does Paulina mean when she says that she will “choose [for Leontes] a queen: she shall not be so young / As was [his] former; but she shall be such / As, walk’d [his] first queen’s ghost” [V:i]?  Such lines might fertilize our supposition that Hermione has never died and has been kidnapped by Paulina or that, still more incredibly, that Paulina has intentionally fashioned, Pygmalion-like, a statue that will come to life.  Is Paulina a thaumaturge who has fashioned a replica of Leontes’ dead wife and animated that replica?  Has Paulina orchestrated a tableau vivant?  Perhaps Paulina is practicing an art that does not perfect or supplement nature, but rather, is practicing “an art / [t]hat nature makes” [IV:iv], to cite Polixenes.  Is the new “Hermione” a verisimilar impostor—a work of art that is wholly natural?  Are we looking at the real living-and-speaking Hermione, or are we looking at her duplicate?  Is the Hermione at which we are looking a zombie?

None of these questions is answerable.  She might or might not be an Alcestis coming back to the overworld.  Whether Hermione is a zombie or not matters as little as whether she was unfaithful or not: This is one of the many ambiguities and paradoxes of late Shakespeare.  She crosses the distinction between livingness and unlivingness, between lifefulness and deathfulness.  She is dead yet alive.  Is this not implied in Leontes’ seemingly necrophiliac remark that he would “again possess her corpse” on “stage” [V:i]?  In the previous act, Perdita denies that her beloved Florizel is “like a corpse” [IV:iii] (wonderful foreshadowing!), for she apprehends his living-and-speaking reality.  This is not the case for Leontes’ non-relation to Hermione, however.  The manifestation of the statue at the end of the play only proves that she is like a mechanical object: She speaks, but only in a mechanical way.  She appears to be artificial and without vitality.

What does matter, I propose, is that Hermione was always a stony image to Leontes.  She always was a lifeless-yet-living effigy to him; she was always a reanimated corpse-image, or perhaps an android or automaton, to him.  Leontes has long since, from the moment that he first saw her, sacrificed her living existence for an unloving-unalive replica.  Leontes’ narcissistic masochism demands that there be an infinite separation, an irrelative void, between him and the woman through whom he loves himself.  Let us not forget Lacan’s remarks on courtly love: The courtly-lover establishes obstacles / impedimenta between him and the object of his desire in order to perpetuate his desire.  He sets up artificial barriers to keep her at a distance.  She must remain remote, deathlike—an apparition of the courtly-lover’s desire for her impassivity.  This is precisely what Leontes does in The Winter’s Tale.  He idealizes and idolizes Hermione in order to compensate for the absence of a relation between them.  She is an idol and has always been an idol to Leontes, an idealized imago.  From the beginning of the play unto its deus-ex-machina ending, she has been a lithic Lilith.

Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of THE MOST LAMENTABLE ROMAN TRAGEDY OF TITUS ANDRONICUS (Shakespeare) / TITUS ANDRONICUS by William Shakespeare / TITUS / An Essay on TITUS ANDRONICUS (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

“Does man kill or torture because he has come to the conclusion that he has the right to do so?  He kills because others kill.  He tortures because others torture…  I kill because you kill.  You and he and all of you torture; therefore, I torture.  I killed him because you would have killed me if I had not.  Such is the grammar of our time.”

—Witold Gombrowicz, Diary, Volume One, 1953

In his 1927 essay “Seneca in Elizabethan Translation,” T.S. Eliot called The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all.”  Whether Shakespeare had any hand in the play is unknown, though I suspect that the insert Act Three: Scene Two, which concerns muscicide, was not inked by the Bard.  However, we do know something about the hands of the play’s characters.  One of the characters of the play, Lavinia, ends up with no hands at all, and her father, Titus, ends up with only one hand.  Moreover, Lavinia is reduced to tongueless inarticulacy, and the flesh of two teenage boys is baked into a pie that is fed to their mother.  All of this is to suggest that The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s goriest, grisliest, ghastliest play, a work that telegraphs and anticipates Jacobean Tragedy, Grand Guignol, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and splatter cinema.


Fresh from a ten-year battle against the Goths, Titus Andronicus is implored by his son Lucius to sacrifice “the proudest prisoner” of the enemy [I:i].  At the opening of the text, the Goths, the immigrants of the play, are the enemy; at the end of the play, the immigrants will become the friends of the Andronici and will overthrow the corrupt dictatorship of Saturninus.  We are reminded that the incursion, the influx, of the Goths will lead to the breakdown of imperial Rome on 24 August 410 C.E.[1]

Titus orders Tamora’s son Alarbus to be killed.  The son is brutally sacrificed—his limbs abscised, his intestines fed to the flames: “Alarbus’ limbs are lopp’d, / And entrails feed the sacrificing fire, / Whose smoke, like incense, doth perfume the sky” [I:i].  The ritualistic disembowelment and dismemberment at the beginning of the play initiate a revenge series.  The Queen of the Goths, Tamora, will exact her revenge against Titus.  Her reckoning is a form of exchange.  In exchange for the death and mutilation of Alarbus, the tongue of Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, is excised and her hands are severed off; Titus’s sons Quintus and Martius are decapitated.  The maimed bodies of Lavinia, Quintus, and Martius correspond to the maimed body of Alarbus—anatomical parts of three children are torn off in exchange for the lopping off of the limbs of the child of the rival family.

A bloody pattern unfolds—one revenge leads to another revenge.  The decapitation of Titus’s sons will, in turn, lead to the decapitation of Demetrius and Chiron.  One plate of heads replaces another plate of heads.  Such is the logic of revenge: Revenge is exchange.  And yet the acts of reckoning do not equalize one another.

The attacks on Titus’s children take place in the forest.  “The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf and dull,” says Aaron to the future rapists and mutilators Chiron and Demetrius [I:i].  The forest is a place of uncivilized desires, of desires far from the ritualized boundedness of civilization.  The forest is not a locus amoenus.  (A locus amoenus is an innocently pleasant site in a work of literature.)  As we know from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, the forest in Shakespeare is a place of deception, of dissimulation, of lying, of self-masking, of delusion, of chimera.

Titus dramatizes insanity, which allows Tamora and her sons to underestimate him.  Disguised as Revenge, Rape, and Murder, respectively, Tamora and her sons are incompetent dramatists, whereas Titus is an inspired dramatist.  In the 1999 cinematic interpretation of the play, directed by Julie Taymor, Titus hatchets off his hand with a meat cleaver in the kitchen—presaging his final self-staging as a cook in the hyper-stylized, meta-theatrical vengeance against Tamora and Saturninus.  He dramatizes revenge at the end of the play, in a space that is a theatre, a banquet hall, and a kangaroo court all at once.  The play-within-the-play is an ambush dinner, a prandial revenge.  Choreographed revenge leads to imperial succession—at the beginning of the play, Titus Andronicus declines the emperorship.  At the end of the play, his son Lucius assumes the emperorship.

Why should Titus be more sympathetic than Tamora?  Why does Titus have the right to vengeance—and not Tamora?  Does she not have equal cause?

Titus doesn’t seem to care about his son Mutius, whom he summarily slays out of duty to the emperor, who, in turn, has no problem betraying his own people by marrying the queen of the enemy, but Titus does care about his only daughter, Lavinia, after he learns that she has been mutilated and (later) learns that she has been violated.  Only after Lavinia is raped and mutilated does Titus becomes a full, empathic human being.  Paternal filicide is supposed to be accepted by the audience with relative equanimity; the violation and mutilation of one’s daughter by strangers is supposed to outrage that same audience.

Consider that the slaying of Mutius takes place onstage, whereas the violation and mutilation of Lavinia take place offstage: The visibility of Mutius has the effect of making Titus appear more sympathetic to us than Tamora, I would argue, since what is seen is more manageable, more tolerable, than what is unseen.  What is unseen is always more horrifying than what is seen—our imagination exaggerates the unseen to obscenely grotesque proportions.  The one truly horrific mutilation—that of Lavinia—takes place offstage and is nothing to laugh at.  The fact that Lavinia’s violation and mutilation take place offstage make these acts unspeakable—as she is rendered an unspeakable presence.

It is not Aaron the Moor who initiates the sequence of retaliations.  One of the Romans says that Aaron incited the series of vengeances, the blood-saturated revenge series, but this is not so: “Give sentence on this execrable wretch / That hath been breeder of these dire events” [V:iii].  It is not Aaron who breeds the dire events of the play—it is Titus Andronicus himself!  It is Titus, again, who orders the killing of Alarbus, the dismembering of his arms and legs, the engulfing of his viscera in flame.  Why, then, should we spectators and readers care more about Titus than we do about Tamora?  Both Titus and Tamora say to their children, to paraphrase: If you love me, you will kill my enemies.[2]


Lavinia endures a terrible glossectomy and a terrible dismemberment: Again, her tongue is cut out, and her hands are cut off.  What remains of her power of speech?  Only tormented and inarticulate groanings.  She cannot phonate, but she can communicate in other ways.  That is to suggest: She is afflicted with aphonia (the inability to vocalize), not with agraphia (the inability to write) or with aphasia (the inability to communicate).

Marcus teaches his niece how to write.  He takes his staff and writes his name in the dirt.  He then encourages his daughter to imitate his scrawl: “Heaven guide thy pen to print thy sorrows plain” [IV:i].  She then takes the staff in her mouth and guides it with her stumps and writes out the name of the heinous crime that was committed against her and the names of the heinous criminals.

Lavinia’s body becomes a book that is readable by her father.  The word is made mutilated flesh.  Titus is able to read her tears.  Titus the Father knows that his daughter is a “[s]peechless complainer” [Ibid.].  Her body becomes a “map of woe, that thus doth talk in signs” [Ibid.]—her body has a language, even though that language is silent.  “I understand her signs,” Titus says of Lavinia’s soundless weeping [III:i]—Marcus’s napkin can never dry her tears. When she kisses the decapitated heads of her brothers Quintus and Martius in Act Three: Scene One, this is a sign—if this is not a sign, then what is a sign?

By becoming her interpreter, Titus has become a strong parent for the first time in his life, both father and mother at the same time.  He vocalizes what his only daughter cannot.  He is the interpreter of her spastic mutism, of her mute language.  “I can interpret all her martyred signs,” he says [III:ii].  The father will “wrest” from his daughter an “alphabet” and “learn to know [her] meaning” [Ibid.]—and Lavinia’s body is a sign of martyrdom.  For to be a martyr means to give testimony, to write.  Self-sacrifice is absolute loss; martyrdom is self-loss that enhances a cause or a program.  In the case of Lavinia, her rape, mutilation, and eventual killing lead to a revolution—much in the way that the rape and suicide of Lucretia did (I will return to this point below).

With her father’s hand in her mouth, Lavinia still has the power of language—the power of silent language, of writing, which is always silent.  The hand in the mouth—is this not the perfect symbol for writing?  The vocalization of her written language is under the guidance of her father, her interpreter, who still has the power of speech.

Wittgenstein writes, “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.”  Though I am not a Derridean, this line of Derrida against Wittgenstein seems a propos to the context: “What cannot be said above all must not be silenced but written.”  Lavinia writes when she does not speak—this might mean that writing is something other than a substitute for speech.  When she inscribes words on the dirty ground with a stick that is guided by her tongueless mouth and her handless arms, Lavinia makes the names of the crime and the criminals readable, even though her mouth is silenced and even though she is deprived of the ability to write with her hands: “Stuprum.  Chiron.  Demetrius” [IV:i].  Her tongue and her hands are erased, and yet she still produces language—again, with the guidance of the father.[3]

There is one moment in the play, however, in which the father’s temporary inability to speak mirrors the daughter’s inability to speak.  What does Titus do when he learns that his daughter has been hideously mutilated, to the point at which she can no longer speak, when he learns that his son Lucius has been exiled from the city of his birth to the otherlands, the shadowlands of the Goths, when he learns that his sons Quintus and Martius have been falsely accused of a crime and then executed, when he learns that he has been tricked into chopping off his own hand to save their lives, in vain?  He laughs.  Indeed, he erupts in maniacal laughter: “Ha, ha, ha!” [III:i].  Titus gives up all pretensions of comfort and enters wordless despair, an abyss of non-verbality.  From that abyss comes vengeance; his laughter issues in the spawning of the plot of revenge.  Non-verbal expression—wordless laughter—corresponds to Lavinia’s wordlessness.  Her silence corresponds to her father’s non-verbal-yet-signifying language: “Ha, ha, ha!”

It is not the case that laughter is an inappropriate response to the irremediable.  Laughter might be the only appropriate response to the irremediable.

This raises the question of the status of humor in the play.  Some audiences find it funny to watch Titus, Lucius, and Marcus squabble over whose hand should be severed (in Act Three: Scene One).  What makes this scene so morbidly hilarious and hilariously morbid to them is the contrast, the incongruity, between the hyper-seriousness of the context and the silliness of the conversation.  Some audiences find it funny to watch Lavinia clutch her father’s severed hand in her teeth (Titus: “Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth” [III:i]).  The humorousness of such scenes highlights and intensifies the play’s seriousness; the humor does not erode the seriousness.  Shakespeare knows well that his jocoserious play would become ludicrous if it were humorless, if it were uninterruptedly serious.  Without humor, there can be no seriousness.  Why is this?  Because humorlessness is laughable.

Is it inappropriate when Marcus rhapsodizes and poeticizes upon discovering his niece hideously disfigured in the wood?  Strangely, there are literary critics who think that it is.  I don’t think that his soliloquy, the longest in the play (it is forty-six lines, longer than Titus’s soliloquy as he slices the throats of Chiron and Demetrius, which is thirty-nine lines long), is inappropriate (as some other critics do); I do think of it as a coping mechanism, as a means of coming to terms with trauma, as a means of coping with the violation and mutilation of his niece.  Still, it must be written: Marcus speaks on his niece’s behalf, whereas Titus speaks in her behalf.

To return to the main argument: Lavinia is hyper-literate, even after her disfigurement.  One should contrast Lavinia’s superior reading skills with the illiteracy of the children of Tamora.  The dull-witted Chiron and Demetrius cannot interpret the meaning of Titus’s citation of Horace, though Aaron can.  When the voices of Chiron and Demetrius are silenced (they are gagged by Publius; this is their metamorphosis, their becoming-bestial), this answers to the silencing of Lavinia.  Lavinia, says her father, is “deeper read and better skilled” [IV:i] than those who waste their time on Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  These days, only graduate students read the Metamorphoses of Ovid.

Shakespeare is reminding us of the ineluctableness of language.  Language is not reducible to the organ that we normally associate with language: the tongue (speech, phonē).  Shakespeare is suggesting that language is not phonocentric; he might even be suggesting that language is graphocentric, which is to suggest that written language is more fundamental than speech.

Even though she is tongueless and handless, Lavinia still has the power of language—in the form of writing, of graphē, of hypergraphia, of graphomania.

Lavinia inscribes words upon the Earth.  She is metaphorized as a storm cloud—a cloud that gives forth rain.  She writes with her tears upon the Earth.  Her tears are the ink, and the Earth is the paper upon which she is writing.  Lavinia writes upon the Earth with her tears and thus revivifies, rejuvenates, refreshes, renews, revitalizes the Earth.  Her tears—her sufferings and the accusations against her attackers, her assailants, her assaulters—will bring about a transformation of the City of Rome.  She will transform the Holy Roman Empire—it will be reconfigured into a Gothic-Roman state, a republic that welcomes and integrates outsiders.

Lavinia is a figure of democracy and of democratization.


There are at least three literary and historical references that frame the rape of Lavinia:

a.) We are reminded of the rape of Lucretia.[4]  Shakespeare, after all, would write his poem “The Rape of Lucrece” in 1594, almost exactly the same time as he wrote this play.  The rape of Lucretia led to the driving-away from Rome of the last of the kings of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, whose slobbering, sinister, psychopathic son Sextus raped the poor girl.  She killed herself out of shame.  The plebeian Lavinia is here placed in the position of a figure of republicanism and anti-tyrannousness.  Just as the tyranny of the Tarquins is expelled from Rome, so will the tyranny of Saturninus be.

b.) To accuse her attackers of the crime of rape, Lavinia opens a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and turns over the pages with her stumps until she arrives at the Rape of Philomela.[5]  Now, there is no mystery of what happened to her.  Every tragedy contains anagnorisis, and this is the moment of recognition: “Lavinia,” her father asks her, “[W]ert thou thus surprised, sweet girl, / Ravished and wronged as Philomela was…?” [IV:i].[6]  This recognition comes by way of reading.  Tereus was married to Progne yet burned with mortal lust for her sister Philomela, whom he raped in the forest; then, he plucked out her tongue and left her for dead in a cabin in the woods.  Philomela, however, survived and wove a tapestry that both identified the crime that was committed against her and revealed the identity of her rapist.  Both sisters exacted a dreadful revenge against Tereus by killing his son Itys and feeding the offspring to the father in the form of a pie.  Swallowing one’s own offspring, of course, will inspire Titus’s prandial revenge against Tamora, in which he forces Tamora to cannibalize, to engorge her sons Chiron and Demetrius.  Tamora is conned into consuming her issue, conned into ingesting her offspring, conned into digesting her discharge, much as Tereus was.  What is interesting about Shakespeare’s reinvention of the Philomela myth is that his Lavinia points to a passage in Ovid—making her a reader and a teacher of reading.  She, after all, is the Young Lucius’s reading teacher.  Marcus says of the boy’s aunt: “[S]he hath read to thee sweet poetry and Tully’s Orator” [IV:i].  Tully’s Orator is a book of rhetoric.  The point here, I think, is that Lavinia is not merely a writer; she is one who teaches how to write well.

c.) The myth of Diana and Actaeon appears and reappears throughout the play.  Bassianus mock-wonders of Tamora, whom he accosts with Lavinia in the forest, if he is looking at the Goddess Diana herself: “Or is it Dian, habited like her, / Who hath abandoned her holy groves / To see the general hunting in this forest?” [II:ii].[7]  Tamora will become Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, quick-transforming the interloper Bassianus into a metaphorical stag that is torn to pieces by her metaphorical bloodhounds.  Bassianus is the cuckold.  He spies on the naked bathing goddess, exposing her in her divine nudity.  Of course, in the myth, the goddess does not assume any particular female shape—she is mutable, transformative—which means that Actaeon is spying upon not the goddess herself, but rather upon a hollow image, before being rent to pieces by her bloodhounds.  The bloodhounds, in Shakespeare’s play, are Tamora’s sons, who murder Bassianus and make of him a cuckold (they be-horn him, fastening metaphorical antlers upon his head).  After she catches Actaeon spying on her divine nudity, Diana screeches: “Tell that you saw me here bathing naked—if you can tell at all!”  Lavinia, voyeuse, will be robbed of the power of speech.  Female voyeurism is a rare subject—but it is presented in Shakespeare.  Actaeon thus figures both Bassianus and Lavinia.[8]


Why the removal of hands?  Heidegger gives us a possible answer in What Is Called Thinking? / Was Heißt Denken?:

The hand is a peculiar thing.  In the common view, the hand is part of our bodily organism.  But the hand’s essence can never be determined, or explained, by its being an organ which can grasp.  Apes, too, have organs that can grasp, but they do not have hands.  The hand is infinitely different from all grasping organs—paws, claws, or fangs—different by an abyss of essence.  Only a being who can speak, that is, think, can have hands and can be handy in achieving works of handicraft.

We now know that some of Heidegger’s comparative anatomy is false.  Chimpanzees do have hands—they even have opposable thumbs—and some animal biologists tell us that chimpanzee hands are more complex than human hands.  The next passage is more interesting.  Heidegger goes on:

But the craft of the hand is richer than we commonly imagine.  The hand does not only grasp and catch, or push and pull.  The hand reaches and extends, receives and welcomes—and not just things: the hand extends itself, and receives its own welcome in the hands of others.  The hand holds.  The hand carries.  The hand signs, presumably because the human being is a sign.

The English translation is wrong at this point, and I have corrected it.  In the German, the text reads: “Die Hand zeichnet, vermutlich weil der Mensch ein Zeichen ist.”  Heidegger continues:

Two hands fold into one, a gesture meant to carry the human being into the great oneness.  The hand is all this, and this is the true handicraft.  Everything is rooted here that is commonly known as handicraft, and commonly we go no further.  But the hand’s gestures run everywhere through language, in their most perfect purity precisely when human beings speak by being silent.  And only when human beings speak, do they think—not the other way around, as metaphysics believes.

So: Humankind is practiced through the hand.  The hand is not an implement of the human; the hand holds within itself the essence of the human.  The hand is the distinguishing trait of human essence.  The hand is not a form of property, something that belongs to us; the hand has us.  Only that being which has language is handed.  Language is not language without the hand.  Only with the hand does the human come about; the hand is the essential ground of humankind.

Is there a relation to the word without the hand?  It seems not.  There is, for Heidegger, a co-belongingness between word and hand.  There must be a hand in order for human language to be.  This means that writing is more fundamental than speech, than phonē.

When hands are removed, the intention is dehumanization.


So many have declaimed that The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is a bad play that people believe that it is a bad play.  It is, I would argue, one of Shakespeare’s ten greatest plays, but it does contain some weaknesses.

There are some rather weak puns: “Deer” is rhymed with its homophone “dear” in Act Three: Scene One.  And yet even this pun is defensible.  Marcus calls Lavinia a “deer,” whereas Titus calls his daughter a “dear.”  For Marcus, Lavinia is a wounded sylvan beast; for Titus, she is a darling.  For Marcus, Lavinia is a premature corpse (“This was thy daughter”), whereas for Titus, she is a living human presence (“so she is“) [emphases mine].  The parechesis of “throats” and “threat” in the same scene is not very strong.  (Parechesis is the repetition of the same sound in quick succession.)

Titus offers to chop off his hands before he is prompted to do so, even before Aaron comes by: “Give me a sword, I’ll chop off my hands too” [III:i] and “[S]hall we cut away our hands like thine [Lavinia’s]?” [Ibid.].  Titus offers to hack off his hand before he is given the fake opportunity to redeem his sons by hacking off his hands.  But his sons are unrehabilitatable in the eyes of the emperor.  The overplay of “I-will-cut-off-my hand” derogates from the power of the moment in which Titus is actually tricked into hacking off his own hand.

Worst of all are the final two lines of the play (in the Arden edition, not in the MIT online edition):

[Tamora’s] life was beastly and devoid of pity, / And being dead, let birds on her take pity [V:iii].

This is bad writing.  One thing that I tell my students is never end two successive sentences with the same word.  When writing verse, never rhyme the endings of the lines of a couplet with the same word.

Rhyming a sound with itself (holorhyming) is never a good idea.  Consider the closest thing that our time has to Shakespeare, the great poet Justin Bieber.  In his otherwise masterly ballad “Yellow Raincoat,” from the 2012 album Believe, Bieber intones these lines:

Well never do I ever do I ever want this to phase me
Well never do I ever do I want this thing to make me

Rhyming homophones is an infelicity; rhyming a word with itself is an even more infelicitous writerly fault.  Shakespeare is a slightly greater poet than Justin Bieber, and there might be justification for his rhyming of the word pity with itself.  What if Shakespeare wants to evoke Lucius’s lack of pity for Tamora by repeating the word pity?  The repetition of the word might drain the concept of its significance.  Lucius’s coldness, his glaciality, might mean that he is no more compassionate than Tamora.


The desire for revenge is the desire for superiority over another human being.  By inflicting pain on the revengee, the revenger demonstrates his or her superiority over the revengee.  This explains why the most selfish, the vainest, the most egoic human beings also tend to be the most vengeful.  However, as Schopenhauer reminds us in Parerga and Paralipomena, “[J]ust as every fulfilled wish is more or less unveiled as a delusion, so too the desire for revenge.”  The word delusion is in English in the original text, which is mostly written in German.

Why is the desire for revenge a delusion?  I would submit the following: The avenger is dependent on the avengee.  Doesn’t revenge make the avenger dependent on the consciousness of the avengee?  If you seek revenge on someone, are you not dependent on the person on whom you wish to avenge yourself?

Try not to place yourself in a position in which vengeance is necessary.  What if my “revenge” were one day ineffective?  What if my acts of “vengeance” were in vain?  What if the objects of my “vengeance” were indifferent to my actions and inactions?

If the object of “revenge” is indifferent to the avenger, the avengee has won and the avenger has lost.  This means that the avenger is emotionally enchained to the emotional state of the avengee.  Revenge means that one is dependent on the object of vengeance, “drinking poison and expecting the other person to die,” as the Buddha says.  Or holding on to hot coal and expecting the other person to be burned, as Confucius says.

The desire for revenge is an obsession with the other human being who, imaginarily or not, has wounded us.  But revenge only enlarges that wound.

In the third scene of the fourth act, there is a great deal of talk of justice, which, like revenge, is often conceived as a form of exchange.  As his kinsmen are drawing their bows, Titus says that there is as little justice in the sea as there is on Earth.  And he also says, in Latin, “Terras Astraea reliquit,” which means: “Justice has left the Earth.”  A just world would be one in which the Romans join forces with the Goths and create a democratic republic in Rome, a republic that would welcome and integrate immigrants.  But currently, in Act Four, there is no justice under the moon, there is no fairness, there is no one-to-one exchange.

Consider this: For the death of Alarbus, Quintus, Martius, and Bassianus are killed (three for the price of one), Lucius is banished, Titus is conned into hacking off one of his hands, and Lavinia is ravished and mangled.  There is no equitableness, and justice would mean fair exchange of one thing for a thing of equal value.  The counter-revenge of Titus and his tribe does not posit equivalence between the losses that they have suffered and the violence that they have inflicted on Saturninus and Tamora. In The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, the desire for revenge results in the almost total self-destruction of the revengers and their families.

In revenge, there is always a remainder.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

[1] Lucius is banished to the otherlands of the Goths, but unlike Coriolanus (who is explicitly referred to in the play, in Act Four: Scene Four), he is not scuppered by one of his parents.  Lucius, unlike Coriolanus, wages a war against Rome, the city of his birth, and crashes its gates—with the approval of one of his parents, his father Titus.  I am revising this essay in 2019, at a time of seismic immigration crises throughout Europe.  Since the Goths assist Lucius in overthrowing a corrupt dictatorship, we can safely infer that Shakespeare’s great play is friendlier to immigration than his own later Tragedy of Coriolanus will be.

[2] Tamora: “Revenge it as you love your mother’s life, / Or be ye not henceforth called my children” [II:ii].  Titus: “And if ye love me, as I think you do, / Let’s kiss and part, for we have much to do” [III:i].

[3] Chiron: “Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so, / And if thy stumps will let thee, play the scribe” [II:iii]. / Demetrius: “See how with signs and tokens she can scrawl.”  But she can write, even though her hands are now stumps.

[4] In Act Two: Scene One, Aaron says: “Lucrece was not more chaste / Than this Lavinia, Bassianus’ love.”  In Act Four: Scene One, Titus asks: “What Roman lord it was durst do the deed: / Or slunk not Saturnine, as Tarquin erst, / That left the camp to sin in Lucrece’s bed?”

[5] Marcus, upon finding his niece in the wood, already identified her with Philomel: “A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met, / And he hath cut those pretty fingers off, / That could have better sewed than Philomel” [II:iii].

[6] And later: “Far worse than Philomel you used my daughter, / And worse than Progne I will be revenged” [V:ii].

[7] Tamora’s response: “Had I the power that some say Dian had, / Thy temples should be planted presently / With horns, as was Actaeon’s, and the hounds / Should drive upon thy new-transformed limbs. / Unmannerly intruder as thou art” [II:ii].

[8] In the shelter of the wood, Aaron says to his forbidden lover Tamora: “[Bassianus’s] Philomel must lose her tongue today” [II:ii].  Bassianus’s Philomel is Lavinia, of course.


An Analysis of VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982) by Joseph Suglia

Victor/Victoria (1982) is clearly Blake Edward’s most significant and most pleasant film.  It has very little of the garishness, decadence, and sordidness that mar some of his other work, though I admire all of his cinematic projects.

I believe it would be fair to say that Victor/Victoria is about the moment at which art stops resembling life and becomes life.  The hilarious cockroach scene is a beautiful instance of the traversal of the seeming / being distinction: The restaurant IS, in fact, infested with cockroaches if the patrons believe that it is.  The James Gardner character feels duped at first–he is attracted to a man impersonating a woman, but that figure is, in fact, a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman.  Later on, Gardner’s character recognizes that it doesn’t matter, ultimately, if Victor is naturally male or female.  “Her” project is to contrive appearances of appearances–not to persuade spectators that her appearance is natural, but to persuade them that her appearance is merely a persuasive appearance, that her “truth” is purely phenomenal.  How clever that the film alludes to Madame Butterfly!  At times, the phenomenon is more “real” than any reality.  “People believe what they see”–they want to be taken in by appearances and are inescapably disappointed by nuda veritas.

I think, in this regard, of Bernstein and Toddy: Both characters are gay and yet also persuasively, almost natively heterosexualized.  When they are wearing their “straight” masks, are they lying?  Are they pretending?  The film conjures up the ancient paradox of Megara: When liars say, “I am lying,” are they telling the truth?  A lie is not a lie if everyone believes it, including the liar him- or herself.  I think of the wonderful bedside conversation between the Julie Andrews and ultra-masculine James Gardner characters: “I find it all fascinating. There are things available to me as a man that I could never have as a woman.  I am emancipated…  I’m my own man, so to speak.”

The point, I think, is not that one appearance is a false and the other is “the truth,” but that two mutually contradictory appearances can coexist simultaneously.  Julie Andrews’ character can switch from “Victor” to “Victoria” in the same way that some bilingual students switch from Spanish to English and then back to Spanish again.  And why not?  We live in, to cite one of the songs, a “crazy world / full of crazy contradictions,” a world of shifting, ambiguous appearances that give life its thrill.  Philosophically speaking, the film exhibits neither a pious, life-negating Platonism nor a Nietzschean celebration and aestheticization of hollow appearances.  It suggests, rather, that you can shift from one phenomenal identity to another without either identity being “true” or emptily fraudulent.  And why not?  Humans are enormously complex creatures, and life is overwhelmingly ambiguous and complex.

Joseph Suglia

A commentary on HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN by Nietzsche / MENSCHLICHES, ALLZUMENSCHLICHES: Nietzsche and Sam Harris / Nietzsche on Women / Was Nietzsche a sexist? / Was Nietzsche a misogynist? / Nietzsche and Sexism / Sam Harris and Nietzsche / Sexism and Nietzsche / Misogyny and Nietzsche / Nietzsche and Misogyny / Nietzsche and Sexism / Nietzsche and Feminism / Feminism and Nietzsche / Friedrich Nietzsche on Women / Friedrich Nietzsche and Sam Harris / Is Sam Harris Influenced by Nietzsche?


A commentary by Joseph Suglia

MAM = Menschliches, Allzumenschliches. Ein Buch für freie Geister (1878); second edition: 1886

VMS = Vermischte Meinungen und Sprüche (1879)

WS = Der Wanderer und sein Schatten (1880)

The following will not have been an interpretation of Nietzsche’s Human, All-Too-Human.  It will have been a commentary: Comment taire? as the French say.  “How to silence?”  In other words: How should the commentator silence his or her own voice and invisibilize his or her own presence in order to amplify the sound of the text and magnify the text’s image?

An interpretation replaces one meaning with another, or, as Heidegger would say, regards one thing as another.  A commentary adds almost nothing to the text under consideration.

Nietzsche’s Psychological Reductionism and Perspectivalism

Human, All-Too-Human is almost unremittingly destructive.  For the most part, it only has a negative purpose: to demolish structures and systems of thought.  However, there is also a positive doctrine within these pages, and that is the doctrine of total irresponsibility and necessity (to which I will return below) and the promise of a future humanity that will be unencumbered by religion, morality, and metaphysics.

In the preface of the second edition (1886), Nietzsche makes this thrust and tenor of his book clear with the following words: The purpose of the book is “the inversion of customary valuations and valued customs” (die Umkehrung gewohnter Wertschätzungen und geschätzter Gewohnheiten).  The highest ideals are reduced to the basest human-all-too-humanness of human beings.  This is a form of psychological reductionism: Once-good values (love, fidelity, patriotism, motherliness) are deposed.  The man who mourns his dead child is an actor on an imaginary stage who performs the act of mourning in order to stir up the emotions of his spectators—he is vain, not selflessly moral.  The faithful girl wants to be cheated upon in order to prove her fidelity—she is egoistic, not selflessly moral.  The soldier wants to die on the battlefield in order to prove his patriotism—he is egoistic, not selflessly moral.  The mother gives up sleep to prove her virtuous motherliness—she is egoistic, not selflessly moral [MAM: 57].

The inversion of valuations leads to an advocacy of the worst values: vanity and egoism (but never the vaingloriousness of arrogance, against which Nietzsche warns us for purely tactical reasons).  As well as lying.  Nietzsche praises lying at the expense of the truth to the point at which lying becomes the truth, and the truth becomes a lie that pretends that it is true.  This, of course, is a paradox, for anyone who says, “There is no truth, only interpretations of truth” is assuming that one’s own statement is true.

Again and again, Nietzsche phenomenalizes the world.  Appearance (Schein) becomes being (Sein): The hypocrite is seduced by his own voice into believing the things that he says.  The priest who begins his priesthood as a hypocrite, more or less, will eventually turn into a pious man, without any affectation [MAM: 52].  The thing in itself is a phenomenon.  Everything is appearance.  There is no beyond-the-world; there is nothing outside of the world, no beyond on the other side of the world, no επέκεινα.

As far as egoism is concerned: Nietzsche tells us again and again: All human beings are self-directed.  I could have just as easily written, All human beings are selfish, but one must be careful.  Nietzsche does not believe in a hypostatized self.  Every individual, Nietzsche instructs us, is a dividual (divided against himself or herself), and the Nietzsche of Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885) utterly repudiates the idea of a substantialized self.  To put it another way: No one acts purely for the benefit of another human being, for how could the first human being do anything without reference to himself or herself?: Nie hat ein Mensch Etwas gethan, das allein für Andere und ohne jeden persönlichen Begweggrund gethan wäre; ja wie sollte er Etwas thun können, das ohne Bezug zu ihm wäre? [MAM: 133].  Only a god would be purely other-directed.  Lichtenberg and La Rochefoucauld are Nietzsche’s constant points of reference in this regard.  Nietzsche never quotes this Rochefoucauldian apothegm, but he might as well have:

“True love is like a ghost which many have talked about, but few have seen.”


“Jealousy contains much more self-love than love.”

Whatever is considered “good” is relativized.  We are taught that the Good is continuous with the Evil, that both Good and Evil belong to the same continuum.  Indeed, there are no opposites, only degrees, gradations, shades, differentiations.  Opposites exist only in metaphysics, not in life, which means that every opposition is a false opposition.  When the free spirit recognizes the artificiality of all oppositions, s/he undergoes the “great liberation” (grosse Loslösung)—a tearing-away from all that is traditionally revered—and “perhaps turns [his or her] favor toward what previously had a bad reputation” (vielleicht nun seine Gunst dem zugewendet, was bisher in schlechtem Rufe stand) [Preface to the second edition].  The awareness that life cannot be divided into oppositions leads to an unhappy aloneness and a lone unhappiness, which can only be alleviated by the invention of other free spirits.

What is a “free spirit”?  A free spirit is someone who does not think in the categories of Either/Or, someone who does not think in the categories of Pro and Contra, but sees more than one side to every argument.  A free spirit does not merely see two sides to an argument, but rather as many sides as possible, an ever-multiplying multiplicity of sides.  As a result, free spirits no longer languish in the manacles of love and hatred; they live without Yes, without No.  They no longer trouble themselves over things that have nothing to do with them; they have to do with things that no longer trouble them.  They are mistresses and masters of every Pro and every Contra, every For and every Against.

All over the internet, you will find opposing camps: feminists and anti-feminists, those who defend religious faith and those who revile religious faith, liberals and conservatives.  Nietzsche would claim that each one of these camps is founded upon the presupposition of an error.  And here Nietzsche is unexpectedly close to Hegel: I am thinking of Nietzsche’s perspectivalism, which is, surprisingly, closer to the Hegelian dialectic than most Nietzscheans and Hegelians would admit, since they themselves tend to be one-sided.  In all disputes, the free spirit sees each perspective as unjust because one-sided.  Instead of choosing a single hand, the free spirit considers both what is on the one hand and what is on the other (einerseits—andererseits) [MAM: 292].  The free spirit hovers over all perspectives, valuations, evaluations, morals, customs, and laws: ihm muss als der wünschenswertheste Zustand jenes freie, furchtlose Schweben über Menschen, Sitten, Gesetzen und den herkömmlichen Schätzungen der Dinge genügen [MAM: 34].  It is invidiously simplistic and simplistically invidious to freeze any particular perspective.  Worse, it is anti-life, for life is conditioned by perspective and its injustices: das Leben selbst [ist] bedingt durch das Perspektivische und seine Ungerechtigkeit [Preface to the second edition].  A free spirit never takes one side or another, for that would reduce the problem in question to the simplicity of a fixed opposition, but instead does justice to the many-sidedness of every problem and thus does honor to the multifariousness of life.

There Is No Free Will.  Sam Harris’s Unspoken Indebtedness to Nietzsche.

Let me pause over three revolutions in the history of Western thought.

The cosmological revolution known as the “Copernican Revolution” marked a shift from the conception of a cosmos in which the Earth is the center to the conception of a system in which the Sun is the center.  A movement from geocentrism (and anthropocentrism) to heliocentrism.

The biological revolution took the shape of the theory of evolution (“It’s only a theory!” exclaim the unintelligent designers), which describes the adaptation of organisms to their environments through the process of non-random natural selection.

There is a third revolution, and it occurred in psychology.  I am not alluding to psychoanalysis, but rather to the revolution that predated psychoanalysis and made it possible (Freud was an admirer of Nietzsche).  Without the Nietzschean revolution, psychoanalysis would be unthinkable, and Twitter philosopher Sam Harris’s Free Will (2012) would never have existed.

I am alluding to the revolution that Nietzsche effected in 1878.  It was a silent revolution.  Almost no one seems aware that this revolution ever took place.

It is a revolution that describes the turning-away from voluntarism (the theory of free will) and the turning-toward determinism, and Nietzsche’s determinism will condition his critique of morality.  Nietzschean determinism is the doctrine of total irresponsibility and necessity.

[Let it be clear that I know that Spinoza, Hume, Hobbes, Schopenhauer, et al., wrote against the concept of the free will before Nietzsche.]

The free will is the idea that we have control over our own thoughts, moods, feelings, and actions.  It conceives of the mind as transparent to itself: We are aware in advance of why we do-say-write-think the things that we do-say-write-think.  This idea is false: You no more know what your next thought will be than you know what the next sentence of this commentary will be (if this is your first time reading this text).  It is only after the fact that we assign free will to the sources of actions, words, and thoughts.  Our thoughts, moods, and feelings—e.g. anger, desire, affection, envy—appear to us as isolated mental states, without reference to previous or subsequent thoughts, moods, and feelings: This is the origin of the misinterpretation of the human mind known as “the free will” (the definite article the even suggests that there is only one).  The free will is an illusion of which we would do well to disabuse ourselves.

We do not think our thoughts.  Our thoughts appear to us.  They come to the surfaces of our consciousness from the abysms of the unconscious mind.  Close your eyes, and focus on the surfacings and submersions of your own thoughts, and you will see what I mean.

This simple exercise of self-observation suffices to disprove the illusion of voluntarism.  If your mind is babbling, this very fact of consciousness refutes the idea of free will.  Mental babble invalidates the voluntarist hypothesis.  Does anyone truly believe that s/he wills babble into existence?  Does anyone deliberately choose the wrong word to say or the wrong action to perform?  If free will existed, infelicity would not exist at all or would exist less.  After all, what would free will be if not the thinking that maps out what one will have thought-done-said-written—before actually having thought one’s thought / done one’s deed / said one’s words / written one’s words?

Belief in free will provokes hatred, malice, guilt, regret, and the desire for vengeance.  After all, if someone chooses to behave in a hateful way, that person deserves to be hated.  Anyone who dispenses with the theory of the free will hates less and loves less.  No more desire for revenge, no more enmity.  No more guilt, no more regret.  No more rewards for impressive people who perform impressive acts, for rewarding implies that the rewarded could have acted differently than s/he did.  In a culture that accepted the doctrine of total irresponsibility, there would be neither heroes nor villains.  There would be no reason to heroize taxi drivers who return forgotten wallets and purses to their clients, nor would there be any reason to heroize oneself, since what a person does is not his choice / is not her choice.  No one would be praised, nor would anyone praise oneself.  No one would condemn others, nor would anyone condemn oneself.  Researchers would investigate the origins of human behavior, but would not punish, for the sources of all human thought and therefore the sources of all human behavior are beyond one’s conscious control / beyond the reach of consciousness.  It makes no sense to say / write that someone is “good” or “evil,” if goodness and evilness are not the products of a free will.  There is no absolute goodness or absolute evilness; nothing is good as such or evil as such.  There is neither voluntary goodness nor voluntary evilness.

If there is no free will, there is no human responsibility, either.  The second presupposes the first.  Do you call a monster “evil”?  A monster cannot be evil if it is not responsible for what it does.  Do we call earthquakes “evil”?  Do we call global warming “evil”?  Natural phenomena are exempt from morality, as are non-human animals.  We do not call natural phenomena “immoral”; we consider human beings “immoral” because we falsely assume the existence of a free will.  We feel guilt / regret for our “immoral” actions / thoughts, not because we are free, but because we falsely believe ourselves to be free: [W]eil sich der Mensch für frei halt, nicht aber weil er frei ist, empfindet er Reue und Gewissensbisse [MAM 39].  No one chooses to have Asperger syndrome or Borderline Personality Disorder.  Why, then, should someone who is afflicted with Asperger syndrome or Borderline Personality Disorder be termed “evil”?  No one chooses one’s genetic constitution.  You are no more responsible for the emergence of your thoughts and your actions than you are responsible for your circulatory system or for the sensation of hunger.

Those who would like to adumbrate Nietzsche’s “mature” thought should begin with Human, All-Too-Human (1878), not with Daybreak (1801).  Nietzsche’s critique of morality makes no sense whatsoever without an understanding of his deeper critique of voluntarism (the doctrine of free will): Again, the ideas of Good and Evil only make sense on the assumption of the existence of free will.

Anyone who dispenses with the idea of free will endorses a shift from a system of punishment to a system of deterrence (Abschreckung).  A system of deterrence would restrain and contain criminals so that someone would not behave badly, not because someone has behaved badly.  As Nietzsche reminds us, every human act is a concrescence of forces from the past: one’s parents, one’s teachers, one’s environment, one’s genetic constitution.  It makes no sense, then, to believe that any individual is responsible for what he or she does.  All human activity is motivated by physiology and the unconscious mind, not by Good or Evil.  Everything is necessary, and it might even be possible to precalculate all human activity, through the mechanics of artificial intelligence, to steal a march on every advance: Alles ist notwendig, jede Bewegung mathematisch auszurechnen… Die Täuschung des Handelnden über sich, die Annahme des freien Willens, gehört mit hinein in diesen auszurechnenden Mechanismus [MAM: 106].

If you accept the cruelty of necessity (and is life not cruel, if we have no say in what we think and what we do?), the nobility of humanity falls away (the letter of nobility, the Adelsbrief) [MAM: 107].  All human distinction is devalued, since it is predetermined—since it is necessary.  Human beings would finally recognize themselves within nature, not outside of nature, as animals among other animals.  I must cite this passage in English translation, one which is not irrelevant to this context and one which belongs to the most powerful writing I have ever read, alongside Macbeth’s soliloquy upon learning of his wife’s death: “The ant in the forest perhaps imagines just as strongly that it is the goal and purpose for the existence of the forest as we do, when we in our imagination tie the downfall of humanity almost involuntarily to the downfall of the Earth: Indeed, we are still modest if we stop there and do not arrange a general twilight of the world and of the gods (eine allgemeine Welt- and Götterdämmerung) for the funeral rites of the final human (zur Leichenfeier des letzten Menschen).  The most dispassionate astronomer can oneself scarcely feel the lifeless Earth in any other way than as the gleaming and floating gravesite of humanity” [WS: 14].

The demystification of the theory of free will has been re-presented by Sam Harris, who might seem like the Prophet of the Doctrine of Necessity.  Those who have never read Nietzsche might believe that Dr. Harris is the first person to say these things, since Dr. Harris never credits Nietzsche’s theory of total human irresponsibility.  If you visit Dr. Harris’s Web site, you will discover a few English translations of Nietzsche on his Recommended Reading List.  We know that Dr. Harris’s first book (unpublished) was a novel in which Nietzsche is a character.  We also know that Dr. Harris was a student of Philosophy at Stanford University.  He would therefore not have been unaware of the Nietzschean resonances in his own text Free Will.  Why, then, has Dr. Harris never publically acknowledged his indebtedness to Nietzschean determinism?

Nietzsche Is / Is Not (Always) a Misogynist.

In 1882, Nietzsche was sexually rejected by Lou Andreas-Salome, a Russian intellectual, writer, and eventual psychoanalyst who was found spellbinding by seemingly every cerebral man she met, including Rilke and Paul Ree.  Since the first edition of Human, All-Too-Human was published four years before, Salome’s rejection of Nietzsche cannot be said to have had an impact on his reflections on women at that stage in the evolution of his thinking.

Nietzsche is sometimes a misogynist.  But I must emphasize: He is not always a misogynist.

At times, Nietzsche praises women / is a philogynist.  To give evidence of Nietzsche’s philogyny, all one needs to do is cite Paragraph 377 of the first volume: “The perfect woman is a higher type of human being than the perfect man” (Das volkommene Weib ist ein höherer Typus des Menschen, als der volkommene Mann).  Elsewhere, Nietzsche extols the intelligence of women: Women have the faculty of understanding (Verstand), he writes, whereas men have mind (Gemüth) and passion (Leidenschaft) [MAM: 411].  The loftier term Verstand points to the superiority of women over men.  Here, Nietzsche is far from misogynistic—indeed, he almost seems gynocratic.

Nor is Nietzsche a misogynist, despite appearances, in the following passage—one in which he claims that women tolerate thought-directions that are logically in contradiction with one another: Widersprüche in weiblichen Köpfen.—Weil die Weiber so viel mehr persönlich als sachlich sind, vertragen sich in ihrem Gedankenkreise Richtungen, die logisch mit einander in Widerspruch sind: sie pflegen sich eben für die Vertreter dieser Richtungen der Reihe nach zu begeistern und nehmen deren Systeme in Bausch und Bogen an; doch so, dass überall dort eine todte Stelle entsteht, wo eine neue Persönlichkeit später das Übergewicht bekommt [MAM: 419].

To paraphrase: Nietzsche is saying that the minds of women are fluxuous and not in any pejorative sense.  He means that multiple positions coexist simultaneously in the consciousnesses of women.  Personalities are formed and then evacuate themselves, leaving dead spots (todte Stellen), where new personalities are activated.  This does not mean that the minds of women contain “dead spots”—it means that they are able to form and reform new personalities, which is a strength, not a weakness.  And yet does he not say the same thing about his invisible friends, the free spirits?  Free spirits are also in a state of constant flux, and their fluxuousness, while necessarily unjust to their own opinions, allows them to move from opinion to opinion with alacrity and to hold in their heads multiple opinions at the same time.  Free spirits have opinions and arguments, but no convictions, for convictions are petrific.  Free spirits are guiltless betrayers of their own opinions [MAM: 637] and goalless wanderers from opinion to opinion [MAM: 638].

Why would the substitution-of-one-position-for-another, intellectual inconstancy, be considered as something negative?  Is it not a trait of the free spirit the ability to substitute a new position for an older one with alacrity?  And is the free spirit not Nietzsche’s ideal human being—at least before the overhuman takes the stage?  Such is my main argument: Free-spiritedness is womanliness, and free spirits are womanly, if we accept Nietzsche’s definitions of “free-spiritedness” and of “womanliness.”

This is not to deny the strain of misogyny that runs throughout Nietzsche’s collected writings.  Yes, Nietzsche does write unkind and unjustifiable things about women—some of his statements about women are downright horrible and indefensible.  My objective here is to highlight the polysemy and polyvocality of his writing, its ambiguity.  For a further discussion of Nietzsche’s ambiguous representations of the feminine, consult Derrida’s Spurs, wherein he analyzes the figure of the veil in Beyond Good and Evil.

To say or write that Nietzsche is always a misogynist would be to disambiguate his work—if by “Nietzsche” one is referring to the paper Nietzsche.  (For a series of accounts of Nietzsche as a human being, see Conversations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries, published by Oxford University Press.)  Nonetheless, let us pause over the historical, living human being Friedrich Nietzsche, who was male, and his relation to one historical, living human being, who was female: Marie Baumgartner, the mother of one of Nietzsche’s students and his sometime French translator.  In the original manuscript of Mixed Opinions and Maxims, the first appendix to Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche wrote: “Whether we have a serpent’s tooth or not is something that we do not know until someone has put his heel upon us.  Our character is determined even more by the lack of certain experiences than by what we have experienced” [VMS: 36].  In a letter to Nietzsche dated 13 November 1878, Marie Baumgartner wrote: “I would gladly have added to your very striking maxim: ‘a woman or mother would say, until someone puts his heel upon her darling or her child.’  For a woman will not silently allow something to happen to them that in most cases she patiently accepts for herself.”  Nietzsche was so affected by Baumgartner’s rather delicately worded suggestion that he modulated the text to reflect her proposal.  If Nietzsche regarded women as inferior (and he never did), why would he take seriously something that a female reader wrote about his manuscript—so seriously that he modified his manuscript to incorporate her words?  The fact that Nietzsche reflected Marie Baumgartner’s suggestion in the revision of his manuscript is evidence enough that he respected the intelligence of this particular woman—the grain of his own writing confirms that he respected the intelligence of women in general and even considered women in general to be more intelligent than men in general.

Nietzsche Was Not an Atheist, if by “Atheist” One Means “Someone Who Does Not Believe in God.”

Nietzsche tells us, in Paragraph Nine of the first volume, “Even if a metaphysical world did exist, it would be nothing other than an otherness [Anderssein] that would be unavailable and incomprehensible to us; it would be a thing with [purely] negative characteristics.”

My question (which has been inspired by Nietzsche) is the following: Why do we even care about the beyond?  Should questions such as “Is there life after death?” not be greeted with apathy?  Why are we engaged with such questions to begin with?  Do not such questions merit indifference rather than seriousness?

Questions such as “Does God exist?” and “Is there life after death?” cannot be answered scientifically or logically.  We do not require their answers in order to live.  All of us live out our lives without knowing the answers to such questions.  Not merely that: It is entirely possible to live out our lives without ever ASKING or PURSUING such questions—and would we not be better off for not having done so?

Let me put it another way: Do the questions “Why does the world exist?” and “Why is there being rather than nothing?” not presuppose a reason for existing and a reason for being?  I am looking at you, Heidegger.

The Nietzsche of 1878 is not an atheist, if by “atheist” one means “someone who does not believe in God.”  Those who contest the existence of a deity or deities are practicing a form of skiamachy.  Nietzsche, on the other hand, is someone who considers questions about the existence of God, or of any extra-worldly transcendence, to be superfluous.  Otherworldliness is not something that can be discussed, since it is purely negative.

Moreover, the Nietzsche of Human, All-Too-Human is not merely not an atheist.  He is also not a philosopher, if by “philosopher,” we mean someone who speculates about imaginary worlds / is an imaginary world-builder.  Nietzsche will not become a philosopher, speculative or otherwise, until the very end of his period of lucidity, with the doctrines of the Eternal Recurrence of the Always-Same and the Will to Power.

Nietzsche Contradicts Himself.  Often.  But This Is Not a Flaw in His Thinking.

Nietzsche contradicts himself—often—but this is not a flaw in this thinking.  He tells us to stop using the word “optimism” [MAM: 28] and then uses the word himself, without any perceptible irony, in other sections of the book.  After scolding us for believing in heroes, he warmly sponsors the “refined heroism” (verfeinerten Heroismus) of the free spirit who works in a small office and passes quietly into and out of life [MAM: 291].  In Paragraph 148 of the first volume, Nietzsche claims that the poet alleviates (erleichtert) life—this seems to contradict his claim, five paragraphs later, that “art aggravates the heart of the poet” (Die Kunst macht dem Denker das Herz schwer), that listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony infuses the listener with the heavy feeling of immortality, with religious and metaphysical conceptions.  If Nietzsche contradicts himself, and he does, this is because free-spiritedness is multitudinous, multi-perspectival, self-contradictory thinking.  Free-spiritedness is multi-spiritedness.

Aphorisms Inspired by Nietzsche

On Religion and Politics

What is religious is political, and what is political is religious.

On Morality

Morality depends on opportunity.

On Communication

A word means something different to you than it does to me, which means that communication is impossible: Nothing is communicable save the power to communicate the impossibility of communication.  (Nietzsche suggests that the worst alienation is when two people fail to understand each other’s irony.)  Consciousness of this fact would liberate us from the bitterness and intensity of every sensation.

On Interpretation

The mind is geared not toward what has been interpreted, but toward that which has not been interpreted and might not even be interpretable.  Nietzsche: “We take something that is unexplained and obscure to be more important than something that has been explained and made clear” [MAM: 532].

On the Voice

We often disagree with someone because of the sound of his or her voice.  We often agree with someone because of the sound of his or her voice.

On Salvation

In a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, Heidegger claimed: “Only a god can save us.”  This statement must be revised: Not even a god could save us now.

On Censorial America

In contemporary America, you may be prosecuted and persecuted for what you think, insofar as what you think is available in language.

Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy / My analysis was cited in the Pennsylvania State University Press journal STYLE

My analysis was cited in Marco Caracciolo’s article “Narrative Space and Readers’ Responses to Stories: A Phenomenological Account,” Style. Vol. 47, No. 4, Narrative, Social Neuroscience, Plus Essays on Hecht’s Poetry, Hardy’s Fiction, and Kathy Acker (Winter 2013), pp. 425-444. Print.

An Analysis of THE ROAD (Cormac McCarthy) by Joseph Suglia

“When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it…”

—Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985) is something of an undergraduate exercise.  It is a Faulknerian pastiche and, above all, hedonistic.  Hedonism, as far as I’m concerned, is an enemy of art.  Whereas Blood Meridian is verbally expansive, the language of McCarthy’s The Road (2006) is strictly delimited.

We follow a nameless father and son as they wander through a post-American void, a “blastosphere,” to use J.G. Ballard’s term.  (Blastosphere = Not the blastula, but the “implicit shape of the way matter is perturbed by an explosion” (Will Self)).  They scavenge for food and tools.  They encounter those who seemingly show their seamiest impulses and who behave in an unseemly manner.

And yet I suspect that this is less a novel about a post-apocalyptic future than it is one about our atheological present.  It is a theological allegory about a world from which the gods are manifestly absent.  Eine gottesverlassene und gottesvergessene Welt.

We find grounds for this supposition in those passages in which the grey waste is described as “godless” [4] and “coldly secular” [274] and wastes of human flesh are named “creedless” [28].

“On this road there are no godspoke men” [32].

The worst thing that could be written about The Road is that it is a sappy religious allegory.  Nabokov wrote of Faulkner’s Light in August:

“The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which also spoils Mauriac’s work.”

I would write of McCarthy’s The Road:

The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which does not pervade Faulkner’s work.

This does not mean that the book is unredeemable, however.  What might have been a pedestrian trifle in the hands of a lesser writer has become something genuinely pedestrian with author McCarthy.  The most distinctive feature of The Road is not the story that is told, but the manner in which McCarthy tells it: that is to say, the narrative.  He writes so magically that a grey empty world is summoned forth vividly before our eyes.

It needs to be said and emphasized that McCarthy has almost completely superseded standard English punctuation in the writing of this novel.  He strategically, willfully omits periods, commas, semicolons, and apostrophes throughout the work in order to equivocate, in order to multiply meanings, in order to enlarge the literary possibilities of language.

The relative absence of punctuation in the novel makes the words appear as if they were the things themselves.  Of course, one could seize upon the conscious, literal meaning of the words.  But does language not slip away from us?  Are its meanings not dependent on the interpretive framework of the listener, of the reader?  And is it not conceivable that the linguistic elisions reflect the consciousness of the central character?

Proper punctuation would disambiguate and thus flatten the sentences–sentences that are, liberated from such restrictions, both benign and lethal.  We have before us a rhetorically complex novel, a work of literature that is rife with ambiguity.

And the non-punctuation makes us feel.  If the “sentences” were punctuated in the traditional manner, we, as readers, would feel nothing.  We would not feel, viscerally and viciously, the nightmarish world into which father and son have precipitated.  We would not be infused with the chill of post-civilization.

The absence of standard punctuation in The Road is a fruitful, productive absence.  It is a writerly, stylistic choice.

I hope I have persuaded my readers that McCarthy’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation is stylized.  It most certainly is not unnecessary.  One of the lessons that we can derive from the novels of McCarthy is how to apply typography in literary craftsmanship.  Punctuation opens or closes the doors of meaning.  Let me invent my own ambiguously commaless sentence for the purposes of elucidation.  If I write, “I want to eat my parrot William,” this would seem to signify that I want to eat a parrot named William, a parrot that belongs to me.  However, what happens if the comma is explicitly absent?  Three contradictory interpretations are then possible: 1.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her, a parrot named William; 2.) The narrator, apparently, wants to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her and is addressing this remark to someone named William (“I want to eat my parrot, William”); 3.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat in general, and this comment is directed at his or her parrot, the name of which is William (“I want to eat, my parrot William”).  Punctuation, depending on how it is used, can restrict or expand meaning.  Commas articulate, determine meaning.  The absence of a comma, on the other hand, opens up semantic possibilities inherent to language.  Its absence opens the doors of ambiguity.

As I suggested above, McCarthy’s refusal to punctuate in the conventional manner is also intimately connected to the internal struggles of the main character and, perhaps, the psychology of the author.  The narrator eschews commas because he fears death.  I suspect that, similarly, McCarthy’s aversion to punctuation bespeaks a futile desire to escape his mortality–a charmingly fragile and recognizably human desire.

“[E]ver is no time at all” [28].

The ephemerality of the instant.  Hence, the relative commalessness of McCarthy’s statements.  A comma would pause an enunciation, rupture its continuity, the incessant flow of language, the drift of language into the future.  What, after all, is a comma if not the graphic equivalent of a turn in breath, of an exhalation or an inhalation?  Commas do not merely articulate a sentence.  Commas stall, they defer, they postpone, they interrupt without stopping.  A speaking that speaks ceaselessly, without commas, in order to outstrip the nightmare of history.  McCarthy’s language moves forward endlessly, without giving readers a chance to catch their breath.  This is a writing that is unidirectional and decidedly equivocal.

The thrusting momentum of McCarthy’s language fertilizes my suspicion that The Road is also a book about time.  More precisely, a book about time’s three impossibilities: the impossibility of ridding oneself of the past completely, the impossibility of eternalizing the present, and the impossibility of encompassing the future.

The future is essentially unpredictable for the son, and the reader has no idea, at the novel’s close, what will become of him.  Will the son survive?  Will he be bred for cannibal meat, for anthropophagous delicacies?  An infinitude of possibilities…  And here we come to yet another strange intimacy between McCarthy’s singular style of punctuating and not punctuating and one of the leitmotifs of his novel: The eerily open-ended “conclusion” of THE ROAD is no conclusion at all, a conclusion without a period.  And the novel lives on inside of the reader’s head and heart, growing within as if it were a vicious monster fungus.

Joseph Suglia

Quentin Tarantino is an Anti-black Racist. DJANGO UNCHAINED is a Work of Anti-black Racism

Quentin Tarantino Is an Anti-Black Racist

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Quentin Tarantino is a slobbering anti-black racist who makes Blaxploitation films for hipsters.  These hipsters grow aggressively defensive whenever African-Americans stand up and denounce these very films.  (Roxane Gay, Spike Lee, Katt Williams, and Armond White are only a few of the African-Americans who have spoken out against Tarantino’s racism.)  Tarantino wishes to prove to his hipster fan base that he knows African-American culture better than African-Americans know their own culture.  And his hipster fanboys also desire that feeling–the feeling that they understand African-Americans better than African-Americans understand themselves.  (For an analysis of the mind of the hipster, consult Norman Mailer’s essay on this topic.)

Tarantino’s latest abomination is Django Unchained (2012), a film about a murderer-for-hire named Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) who enlists an African slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) to assist him in his mass-murdering spree.  Their journey ends at Candyland, a plantation owned by the oleaginous Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in an amusing and impressive performance that elevates above the film and never quite descends into camp).  There is much to demur to, but I will restrict myself to three demurrals: 1.) The film is an agglomeration of plagiarisms.  2.) The film is crypto-racist garbage.  3.) The screen violence is without passion or meaning.


Django Unchained is a pastiche of Spaghetti Westerns.  The opening song was lifted directly from the English-language version of Django (1966).  On the soundtrack is a well-known composition from Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)–an American Spaghetti Western, if there ever was one.  There is also an appearance by Franco Nero, star of the original Django, which is a pointless, meaningless cinematic reference that adds nothing whatsoever to the film, which is itself a pointless, meaningless accumulation of cinematic references.

The references are smarmily, unctuously obvious.  One thinks of the scene in which Schultz recounts to Django the basics of Das Nibelungenlied.  If Tarantino were an artist, he wouldn’t have spelled out the legend of Siegfried and Brunhilda for the benefit of his illiterate spectatorship.

Not merely does the film contain a cluster of plagiarisms; it itself is a plagiarism.  The film is an unacknowledged remake of the Mandingo films of the 1970s–in particular, Mandingo (1975) and its sequel, Drum (1976).  Tarantino steals from these sources to such a degree that his film would have been better entitled Mandingo Unchained.

Calvin Candie is clearly modeled on two characters in Drum: DeMarigny (John Colicos), connoisseur of Mandingo fights, and Warren Oates’ character Hammond, slave-owner and breeder of Mandingos.  Both characters were spliced together to create the hybrid Calvin Candie, lover of intra-racial violence.

The Mandingo-fight scene [1:05] owes everything to the original Mandingo film, although different body parts are excised.  In Django Unchained, an eye is enucleated.  In Mandingo, a jugular vein is torn out.

Quentin Tarantino isn’t very much different from Calvin Candie.  After all, they both enjoy watching Mandingo fighting.


On the surface, Django Unchained seems to be directed against white anti-black racism.  But it is itself a work of white anti-black racism.

Now, I like revenge fantasies as much as the next person, but there is something more sordid, more sinister going on here than what goes on in most revenge fantasies (“You got me!  Now I’m gonna get you, sucka!”).  Like its predecessor, Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained is a work of genocide pornography, the cruelest, most unconscionably vicious form of pornography in existence.  The crude plot of Inglourious Basterds trivializes the Holocaust; the crude plot of Django Unchained trivializes the enslavement of Africans in antebellum America.

But Django Unchained does more than merely trivialize the enslavement of Africans in nineteenth-century America.  It turns the enslavement of Africans into an object of consumption, an object of enjoyment.

To call this film “ahistorical” would be a gross understatement.  The film approximates history as closely as Spongebob Squarepants approximates marine biology.  With one important qualification: The creator of Spongebob Squarepants actually knows a great deal about marine biology, even if he chooses not to exhibit this knowledge in the television program that he spawned.  This film bears no relation to history whatsoever.  It is a bombinating vacuum in which references from exploitation films resonate.

No one in the nineteenth century ever said, “Adult supervision is required.”  Nor did anyone ever use the term “***********************************.”

Slaves could not read, but Django does a pretty good job of reading aloud the text of a Wanted poster [0:57].  He doesn’t know the words “bounty,” “valet,” or “positive,” but he does know the words “antagonize” and “intrigue.”  As Katt Williams pointed out, it is odd that Django can spell his own name.

The late populist film critic Roger Ebert used the term deus ex machina (“God-out-of-the-machine”) to describe the entry of Schultz in the opening of the film.  That moment isn’t quite a deus ex machina–such a device is commonly used at the end of a work, such as when Helios transports Medea on a golden chariot at the end of Euripides’ tragedy.

However, Ebert was correct to call Schultz a “god.”  He just didn’t know the extent to which he was correct.

Schultz is a god, all right.  He is the white god who creates the black Django.  “I feel vaguely responsible for you,” he says to Django.  “I gave you your freedom.”

Yes, it is Schultz who grants Django his liberty.  The first time we see Django’s face is when Schultz shines light on him.  It is Schultz who transforms Django into a murderer-for-hire.  It is Schultz who sculpts Django into a full human being.

Django is not allowed to kill Calvin Candie.  Only the Good White Master is allowed to kill the Evil White Master.  Django is allowed to kill Candie’s minions–both black and white — but not their Evil White Master.  Django has a master, all right, and his name is Dr. King Schultz.

It is for this reason that Will Smith declined to assume the role of Django: “Django wasn’t the lead, so it was like, I need to be the lead.  The other character was the lead!  I was like, ‘No, Quentin, please, I need to kill the bad guy!'”

Will Smith’s objection to the film gets to the heart of the problem: Django is a secondary character, the Good White Master’s marionette.

Much has been made of the use of the “N-word” in the film.  That is because Tarantino enjoys saying the “N-word.”  The “N-word,” evidently, is his favorite word in the English language, a language that he does not know very well.  He expresses the “N-word” with brio, emitting it with gusto, as if this word were a shibboleth.

One recalls the infamous (I am using this word in its proper sense) scene in Pulp Fiction (1994) in which Tarantino-playing-Tarantino utters the “N-word” in Tourette’s-like staccato beats.  There is no point in arguing that Tarantino is playing a character and that his character is racist, not Tarantino, when Tarantino is obviously playing himself in the scene.  The delight that he feels whenever he bleats the “N-word” is palpable.

Django Unchained is backwater garbage, racist filth, intended for ugly-souled racist hipster fanboy cretins.  The film is regressive because it imagines that White (the presence of all color) and Black (the absence of all color) are “colors” and that races and have really existent correspondents.  The film erodes and erases so many of the steps that America has taken over the past four years.  I wrote the words above on 13 July 2013, the day on which George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin.

What is a racist?  A racist is someone who has nothing of which to be proud other than his or her epidermal pigmentation.  We are, all of us, out of Africa.  Anthropologists have established that Africa is the cradle of humanity and that there are only epidermal subdivisions between us.  It makes no sense to speak of “race,” since each individual “race” encompasses so many of these subdivisions.

Quentin Tarantino hypostatizes race.


I don’t mind screen violence.  Screen violence can be bracing.  The problem with the representational violence in Django Unchained is that it is mechanical, spiritless, passionless.  It is difficult to understand how or why anyone would be offended by the violence in the films of Tarantino.  The violence in all of his films is automatized, transactional, emotionless.

I would like to call your attention to the moment [0:57] in which Schultz murders the alleged stagecoach robber Smitty Bacall.  Schultz snipes at his victim from a distance of about 200 feet.  Tarantino shoots the man from a distance of 200 feet, as well.  There is a complete emotional disengagement between the murderer and the murderee.  There is also a complete emotional disengagement between the film and the murderee.  We see the man’s son running to his father and hear the boy screaming, “Pa! Pa!”  But the boy and his father are no more than flecks of dust on the screen.  The father and son are hardly represented as human beings, at all.

And what about the scene that immediately follows the one that I just described?  The scene in which Django and Schultz use a band of cowboys for target practice [0:58]?  What, precisely, did these cowboys do to deserve to be gunned down?

All of the murders are filmed with the detached eye of a psychopath.

By contrast, the death scenes in the films of Nicolas Roeg are historically intense.  “A young man is cut down in the prime of his life,” Roeg said, referring to his directorial debut, Performance (1970).  “[Death] is an important thing.”

The murder of Lara Lee Candie (Laura Cayouette), Calvin’s sister [2:39], is as passionate as the deletion of a Microsoft Word document.

In Django Unchained, human characters (and horses) are eliminated with the same passion with which you would close pop-up advertisements on your computer screen.

* * * * *

The antistrophe to my arguments is quite predictable.  “It’s only a movie” comes the bleating response.  You can hear the booing, the cooing, and the mooing: “It’s only a mooooooooooooooooooovie.”  Keep on telling yourselves that: “It’s only a moooooooooooovie…  It’s only a moooooooooovie…”

Despite such zoo noise, it can be said, without fear of exaggeration or absurdity, that Django Unchained is one of the vilest motion pictures ever made.  Not because of its violence (again, screen violence can be bracing), but because it delights in the exploitation and dehumanization of African-Americans.  Quentin Tarantino is a hate criminal, and Django Unchained is a hate crime.

Dr. Joseph Suglia,


A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Two: A Supposedly Fun Thing That I Will Never Do Again / “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” / “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” / “David Lynch Keeps His Head”

An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia

I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts.  His métier was, perhaps, mathematics.  David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).

Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed.  I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997).  Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.

In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can.  He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38).  Perish the thought!

Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television.  Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television.  Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):

1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.

Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).

“Trust what is familiar!” in other words.  “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase.  Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television.  David Foster Wallace was wrong.  No, writers should NOT trust television.  No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see.  The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.

There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste.  That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s.  Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65).  He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time.  They did not, of course.  One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification.  To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television.  But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?

It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist.  Let me enlarge an earlier statement.  Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer.  It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32).  Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it.  Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them.  We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.).  Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  That is your false dilemma.  If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY.  Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.

Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection.  There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism.  There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.

Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).

To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance.  The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990).  Did Wallace never see this film?  How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart?  Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?

To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence.  No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political.  How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness?  How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets?  And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?

Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are.  Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book.  It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.

Joseph Suglia

IN MEMORIAM TO IDENTITY by Kathy Acker / An Analysis of IN MEMORIAM TO IDENTITY by Kathy Acker

An Analysis of In Memoriam to Identity (Kathy Acker) by Joseph Suglia


Resonating with the title of Kathy Acker’s most mature work, In Memoriam to Identity (1990), is the notion that the self is inseparable from its own becoming-other, from the forms that it assumes and the masks that it dons.  The book serves as a series of largely disconnected epitaphs to a discarded concept of identity—that is, to “identity” conceived as transcendental and substantialized subjectivity that would endure unchanged through time and exist a priori independently of all relations to the other.  What Acker’s book suggests, in a manner that seems disjointed and even at times haphazard, is that personal identity is based on the exposure to the other person that is revealed by sexuality (the final and perhaps most significant word of the book).

Three cycles of narrative intersect with each other: 1.) A willfully anachronistic and reconstructive transcription of Rimbaud’s biography (broken off arbitrarily when Acker grew disgusted with the poet’s imperialist conversion) interspersed with references to AIDS and postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard (here decried as a cynic), deliberate mistranslations of Rimbaud’s verse, and intentionally unacknowledged citations from Büchner, Lautréamont, and Artaud—members of the counter-tradition of subversive literature within which Acker would like to insert herself.  Of foremost importance to her is Rimbaud’s impassioned relationship to Verlaine, who is compelled to choose between a socially unacceptable liaison with the boy and his responsibilities as a father, husband, and member of the bourgeoisie.  The narrative is set against the background of the Franco-German War of 1870.  According to the logic of Acker’s repoliticization, the Germans appear as yuppies who wage a ceaseless battle against the unemployed and arrogate to themselves services that only they can afford.

2.) A narrative oriented around Airplane, a young girl who exists in a relationship of absolute dependency to her rapist (later nominated as her “boyfriend”)—a relationship that mirrors, despite Acker’s own self-interpretive claims, Rimbaud’s relationship to Verlaine.  She is inexorably driven to dance at a strip club.

3.) A transformative replication of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury that concerns the sexually voracious Capitol, who is erotically obsessed with her brother Quentin.  Her goal, to couple with every man in the world, is the indirect endeavor to achieve sexual congress with her brother, the only man who matters to her.  Capitol is the pure desire to consume men, the will to conquer through copulation; she generalizes her male sexual partners to the point at which they are reduced to nothing.  Because Capitol can never remember any of the men with whom she couples (and does not exercise any discrimination in her choices), she not only erases these men as individual human beings: By eliding all memory, she effectively destroys her Self as an identity that would persist through time.  She “herself,” a female Don Giovanni (and this is the joint that links her narrative to the Rimbaud section), is “No One”: non-identical with herself; “she” is a multiple series of drives to overcome men through sexuality.

4.) “The Wild Palms” alternates successively between the narrative of Airplane and that of Capitol; both narratives are sutured together in counterpoint (this is a Faulknerian practice).

To love, in each context, is to demolish and shape one’s personal history.  The work is an extended, productive commentary on Rimbaud’s dictum, “Je suis un autre,” “I am an other.”  The most productive point of departure for an analysis of this work would be the first narrative, which concerns this dictum most directly.  Rimbaud longs to free himself not merely from the self that he is and has been, but from the stability of identity in general: “I want to die” [21].  He desires “to wake inside someone else’s skin” [23] (a direct translation from Rimbaud’s correspondence), and this self-transformation is only possible by way of a relation to the other human being: “Human flesh needs human flesh. Because only flesh is value” [27].  And later: “I’m waiting! I’m waiting for what I want! A certain type of life which I call LIFE.  So far I haven’t been able to get there because I need another person, V, and what’s happened and is still happening between me and V is nothing, ****… I want blood” [28].  Rimbaud prefers “the vulnerability of real identity” to the bourgeois self (a pre-existing self that would be identical to itself).  R’s identity is, strictly speaking, a non-identity: He is a multiple series of selves rather than the self-sameness of the unique self that would come before all others.  His desire to become other-than-himself, to be exteriorized as his own double, is inextricably bound to his relation to V.  Identity is both constituted and destroyed by the sexual relation.

It is a relation that gives rise to the most intense experience of pain.  Sexuality is not absolute communion, the fusion of the self and the Other, but rather absolute loneliness: What is most distinctive about the sexual relation is the absence of all bonds between the persons involved.  Whereas R’s relationship to V is one of submission, fragility, and addiction, the latter’s relationship to the former is something that could be reduced to a moral decision (Verlaine is able to choose between Rimbaud and his responsibilities as a husband, father, and member of civil society).  One witnesses a certain dissymmetry in the relation between R. and V. in scene after scene of this work.  What marks their rapport is the fact that this relation is unequal and without a future.  The hopelessness of the relation belongs to it essentially and defines both of its members.  Love becomes, as well, synonymous with coercion, the penetration of rape, and the agony of torture: “R’s consciousness of his love for V was a torture rack” [62].  R hates to desire V.  He desires V because he hates V, because V is killing him.  As Rimbaud says to his mentor African Pain: “I need what you’re doing to me because it’s only pain and being controlled which’re going to cut through my autism.  Because it’s pain you give me I love you” [5].  Acker’s “Rimbaud” is inescapably drawn to Verlaine because of the pain that the latter inflicts upon him.  He discovers love through pain and this is the only experience that would allow him to “demolish” “identity” [18] altogether: “There’s no way out but death or consciousness… Break the heart’s dead ice. He knew that the habitual self had to be broken” [16].

When V. withdraws from R’s life altogether in order not to be named a “homosexual,” R accedes to another relation.  It is at this point that R renounces poetry and pronounces poetry’s end—though one cannot assign a precise date, August 1873, for instance, to this renunciation and pronouncement—and is transformed utterly: “Each person has the possibility of being simultaneously several beings, having several lives” [92].  It is not as if Rimbaud discarded his past self as if it were an old shell and entered into a new one (that of an arms dealer and ivory trader).  What is affirmed is the essential instability and uncertainty of all identity: that the “I” is already the “Non-I.”

The renunciation of poetry corresponds precisely to the renunciation of Verlaine and what he represents: the self-sameness of subjectivity conceived as substance.  Such is Acker’s implicit explanation of R’s alleged “silence”—which was not a form of silence at all, but the accession to another order of writing.  It is not merely the case that R has broken with his past self and is transmuted into an imperialist (such is a conclusion that Acker has rejected).  He enters into an experience in which the self is continually annihilated and reformed, an experience in which the self proliferates into a series of duplicable selves or non-selves.  R’s narrative ends with the affirmation of an other consciousness: not a new consciousness that would supersede one that would come before it, but a consciousness that is always entirely other-than-itself.  R’s apparent renunciation of poetry, mistyped as his “silence,” was, in fact, a phenomenological turn toward the experience of the self as an other.

All of Acker’s work is severely flawed and In Memoriam to Identity is no exception.  But these flaws are tied to the success of her densely individuated style.  Acker’s bad writing (and carelessness is in evidence here—I have seldom read a book with more typographical and syntactical errors) might be read, charitably, as a mark of her biblioclasm, of her refusal to fashion a well-crafted masterpiece that would be accepted within the canon of traditional literary history.  Unfortunately, the stylization of the narrative is not immune to this practice.  The description of the relationship between R and V is, I’m afraid, only intermittently compelling and tends to veer toward mere compilation and summary of biographical data.  The deadpan repetition of “facts” from R’s life denies any pathetic identification on the part of the reader.  This, in itself, would not be disturbing if pathos were not what In Memoriam to Identity were all about.  The work is most impressive when Acker gives herself over to the desire, however juvenile, to shock her audience and approximates the punk sensibility of her vastly inferior early novel Blood and Guts in High School (1980), while bringing to the work a far greater intelligence.  And yet the work lacks the critical naivete that made Acker’s early writing (relatively) powerful.  Most troubling in this regard are the frequent intrusions of Acker the Professor and Literary Theorist into the space of the narrative.  Everything proceeds as if the author had surfeited herself with postmodern theory to the point at which she could only write narratives fraught with savvy, self-interpretive statements.  She anticipates the interpretation of her work in the hands of her informed readership.  In Memoriam to Identity thus takes on the strange appearance of a book that reads itself.

Joseph Suglia